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Minimum wage pay is leaching into year-round UK teaching posts

Minimum wage jobs are appearing in UK EFL even in year-round schools. The summer schools have long skated on thin ice when it comes to minimum wage (see opposite) but year-round schools managed, until Covid, to pay enough per teaching hour to cover not just the time spent in class, but meetings, admin and other work- related activities which must be paid under minimum wage law.

In February this year, however, an ad from NCG Manchester, a British Council accredited school, appeared offering a fixed-term contract for 30 teaching hours in a full-time, 40-hour week for £19,760 a year pro rata. Since April 1 this year this is the exact amount of minimum wage payable to all workers aged 23 or older working 40 hours in the UK. An advert from the same school for permanent student support staff came in higher at around £21,000 per annum.

There is nothing unlawful in the NCG offer. A minimum-wage salary is, by definition, lawful. Indeed, it might be advantageous for EFL teachers to take such a contract which provides a guaranteed income equivalent to £12.67 per 60 minutes of teacher contact time rather than, say, £13 or £14 per teaching hour on a zero-hours contract.

However, as the UK’s Low Pay Commission has noted, salaried employees on minimum wage are more likely than hourly paid workers to be paid below the threshold because working time is calculated to the nearest 15 minutes.

A common reason for underpayment of minimum wage is a requirement for staff to come in earlier and or leave later than the time stated on the contract. Many language schools, for example, require teachers to arrive say, 15 minutes before classes, but minimum wage must be paid for all the time to the nearest 15 minutes staff are required to be at the premises and available for work.

On a minimum-wage annual salary, even an extra half an hour of working time a day can lead to an underpayment of £1,228.5 per year.

According to business advice firm BDO, government inspectors “will typically look to scrutinise any time the worker is at work and is not paid, particularly where the employer doesn’t have records to demonstrate this is unrelated to working time…

“Problems have arisen on cases where a worker has to undertake pre-work tasks, such as changing into uniform, loading up computers, even the time to enter the building and place their belongings in a staff common room before the required start time.”

Another issue is non-payment for work-related activities, all of which are deemed to be working time under NMWR, and time spent doing them cannot be treated as a rest period. This specifically includes not only travel and training, but also meetings, admin and even working lunches, work emails and phone calls.

In terms of teachers, this may also include unpaid lesson preparation, marking and assessment undertaken on the premises, according ACAS, the UK’s employment law information service.

As to whether preparation and marking done at home could count as working time for minimum wage purposes, an ACAS advisor felt there was an interesting legal argument to support this which could only be decided in court.

Further, ACAS made clear that all the rules governing working time for minimum-wage salaried workers also cover hourly paid workers on zero-hours contracts.

The Gazette contacted NCG Manchester about this article, inviting them to comment, but received no reply.

However, another school which offers a fixed-term minimum wage teaching contract did agree to explain their working hours on condition of anonymity.

Because the school cannot guarantee continuous teaching work outside the summer, it offers most teachers a zero-hours contract around £20 per teaching hour. This hourly rate is set to cover meetings, training as well as admin and lesson planning. Their fixed-term contract teacher is guaranteed a 37.5 hours a week of work at minimum wage or just above, depending on experience.

The school’s teaching schedule is designed to fit closely with NMWR requirements. Each day is made up of one half-hour meeting, four hours teaching and one half- hour break designed for admin and planning. The only unpaid time is a one-hour lunch when, in line with NMWR, teachers can opt to leave the premises. The zero-hours teachers receive £80 a day when work is available.

In a normal teaching week, the full-time teacher, who is guaranteed work year round, does a further two and half hours of admin, generally working for the Director of Studies. Any overtime is taken as time in lieu in the next few working days, again in line with the regulations.

Fixed-term minimum wage contracts may not be a good sign in an industry where wages have been stagnating for two decades. However, they can be designed to meet the regulations and provide a guaranteed income.

The same cannot be said of zero-hours contracts based on teaching-contact hours only, which take no account of other time when, under the law, teachers are deemed to be working.

Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
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