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Don't take heads' comfort blankets

David Sassoon wants a stay of execution for the threatened threshold assessors.

Threshold payments are poised to be different in September. It is likely that Cambridge Education Associates, who masterminded the process from its start four years ago, will be relegated to a minor role.

Threshold assessors will no longer be required to validate and review heads' decisions on which teachers qualify for the pay rise. There are two good reasons being advanced for these changes. The first is that the Government has at last recognised that heads can deal with threshold applications. The second is that the money saved on assessors will be recycled into frontline services. The real reason may well be that the Department for Education and Skills has embarked on a cost-cutting exercise.

Whatever the rationale, this is perhaps an apposite time for leaders to reflect on the arrangements with a view to influencing the debate and organisation of future procedures.

In the current round, threshold applicants had to complete a complex form in December 2003 demonstrating, with suitable evidence, that they had met eight rigorous standards. Heads had to decide whether standards were met using the application form, the head's own knowledge and that of senior staff.

CEA organised the applications in batches of five schools and farmed them out to the assessors. An assessor who wished to keep accreditation for this sort of work had to accept and work on at least one batch. If the head was in the first year of a first headship, the assessors had to visit the school. In other cases, they could check up on headteachers' judgments through distance verification, except where any processes used were suspect, questionable or iffy.

In such cases, the assessors would have to seek the permission of CEA's regional co-ordinators to visit the schools. Fees to the assessor for distance verification were, naturally, much lower than those for school visits; hence the need for permission, in case filthy lucre was the motivation.

All this is now to change, as assessors generally will no longer be required. However, a small group of will probably still be needed to deal with review cases, should teachers appeal against their heads' decision.

While it is to be welcomed that ministers are demonstrating more trust in heads, there are at least three good reasons why it is important for the school-based threshold process to be kept under the microscope.

* There are some headteachers - albeit a small minority - who allow personal peccadilloes to cloud their judgments. Occasionally, heads' pets on the staff secure the cream whether or not they merit it and hardworking, competent teachers who have aroused their ire fall foul of the system.

* Who will support and guide new heads in validating their rationale when assessors sail into the sunset?

* Heads feel secure when assessors cover them with blankets of validity confirming threshold decisions. They feel protected when the assessors authorise their decisions not to permit others to do so. They are relieved to be able to put the blame on outsiders.

I hope that someone in Sanctuary Buildings will take account of these issues before finalising the arrangements for threshold assessments in July.

David Sassoon is an educational consultant and a former head

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