The assumption that teachers will receive automatic pay rises as they stay in the job was cast into serious doubt by Westminster education secretary Michael Gove last week.
Mr Gove signalled his aim to introduce performance-related pay for teachers and called for investigation into whether pay scales are a "barrier" to reform.
The move came in a remit handed from Mr Gove to the School Teachers' Review Body, which he is obliged to consult on teachers' pay and conditions. He asked how pay scales "should be reformed to more effectively link pay and performance".
The move comes as teachers are part-way through a two-year pay freeze and face having to pay higher contributions to their pensions.
The proposed reforms raise the prospect of teachers being barred from pay rises unless they reach goals set by their managers or seek promotion to posts with more responsibility.
Martin Freedman, head of pay and conditions at the ATL union, said the plans were a "huge step backwards" and raised fears that financial pressure on schools could stop heads offering pay rises.
"A teacher could be missing out, not because they are not performing well, but because the school is short of money," he said. "It's like in the 1980s, where you moved up the pay scale only if you were in with the head. Once you start taking away objectivity from the system, how can we be sure it will operate fairly?"
Andrew Morris, head of pay at the NUT, added: "We don't feel there is a case for performance-based pay . You can't really measure how well a teacher is contributing to the education of a class; the circumstances of individual students have to be taken into account."
At present, teachers' pay increases automatically as they progress up the main pay scale, unless their head makes a case why it should not. After six years' experience, teachers can pass through the "threshold" on to the upper scale if their teaching is of a high enough standard, with the vast majority able to make that step.
Mr Gove's letter follows a warning by the new Ofsted chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, that heads could come under pressure from inspectors to justify any pay rises they give to staff.
Sir Michael said that it was "quite legitimate" for inspectors to ask heads, "How many of your staff have moved up the main (pay) scale?" or "How many have gone through the (upper pay) threshold?"
The proposal also further undermines the status of national deals on pay and conditions, with academies and free schools already exempt from the agreements.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, said he was unsure whether "a crude bonus structure" of performance-related pay would work in schools, although he added that it could allow talented young teachers to rise more quickly up the pay scale.
But the move was welcomed by James Groves, head of the education unit at right-leaning thinktank Policy Exchange. "It's definitely a question that needs to be asked. I'm not sure we can get more teachers to come forward to join the profession unless we shake the system up a bit. Some younger teachers I know would be in favour of this," he said.
The STRB has also been asked to look at the pros and cons of introducing regional pay, and for advice on how to "make pay more market-facing for teachers".
MAIN PAY SCALE
England and Wales (excluding London)
pound;21,588 Scale point 1
pound;23,295 Scale point 2
pound;25,168 Scale point 3
pound;27,104 Scale point 4
pound;29,240 Scale point 5
pound;31,552 Scale point 6
Upper pay scale
pound;34,181 Scale point U1
pound;35,447 Scale point U2
pound;36,756 Scale point U3.