In politics, actions speak louder than words. So when David Blunkett told the Labour party conference that "teachers are our most precious asset", teachers themselves will have looked more carefully at what he went on to say about his forthcoming Green Paper on pay. It would, he promised, ensure that "high performance gets high reward, not just for the few but for the many".
A potential model for this expansion of performance-related pay is the embryonic Advanced Skills Teacher grade. Mr Blunkett, who has said he wants 5,000 of these so-called "superteachers", added that he intends to "go very much further" along this road.
So how is the initiative working? So far only around 50 have been appointed, all of them in secondary schools. The target for the end of this term is a modest 70. The appointments are clustered around relatively few schools, with several having appointed two or more ASTs.
These schools have attracted ministers' interest as they seek a way to reward the many, not just the few. Beauchamp College in Oadby, near Leicester, already has five "super teachers". Principal Maureen Cruickshank would like to have half of her staff, some 45 teachers, on the AST grade.
That may sound unrealistic now but Beauchamp could be anticipating the Green Paper. The college - with 1,700 pupils aged 14 to 18 - is already using its "superteachers" to visit neighbouring schools. Their services are being promoted via the Internet and the college would like to use them to offer "master-classes" either in cyberspace or at the college.
An obvious next step, says Maureen Cruickshank, would be to send the ASTs into the education action zone in nearby Leicester. So how has Beauchamp been able to arrange its staffing to release its best teachers to work in other schools without damaging the quality of its own teaching?
The AST scheme is funded by the Government for two years. For each AST post the school receives pound;6,000 a year to cover increased pay (not all of this necessarily goes to the "super- teacher" themselves) and a further pound;6,000 to provide staff cover so the ASTs can spend one day a week either helping colleagues or visiting other schools.
At Beauchamp, most of the teachers appointed as ASTs were already heads of department. So the college was able to hand their former post, and pay points, to someone else in the school. The principal believes this was an important factor in making the scheme acceptable to the staff as it created career movement and financial advantages for the colleagues of the newly-appointed ASTs.
Janet Waters, a teacher with 30 years experience, was head of science before taking up her AST grade. So, as she lost her existing incentive pay points, her pay rise was relatively small. Indeed for most AST's the headline figure of salaries up to pound;40,000 has proved a mirage.
For Janet the incentive to apply for an AST post was the opportunity to share her experience and ideas with other teachers, both inside and outside the college. Through the college's website she is offering advice on resources and teaching methods. She hopes to establish some teaching workshops and she has started visiting feeder middle schools in the area to liaise with their science staff.
So far all ASTs have been internal appointments. Now, though, some schools in education action zones are interested in offering AST grades to external candidates. However this brings the complication that they have first to be appointed to a post at the school and then go through a separate process before receiving the AST grade.
The assessment process for "superteachers" is designed to avoid any charges of cronyism. Headteachers cannot simply award AST status to their favourites. All appointments have to be approved by Westminster Education, independent consultants appointed by the Government. So far two teachers proposed by their schools have not met the requirements.
Westminster Education is one of the largest suppliers of OFSTED inspections and has many former headteachers on its books. They include Nigel Middleton who is one of their AST assessors. Once a school has nominated a "superteacher" candidate, he is sent there to assess their suitability.
Candidates are expected to show excellence across several criteria: teaching ability , pupils' results, subject knowledge, planning, maintaining discipline, assessment and advising and supporting colleagues. Assessors like Nigel Middleton observe lessons and talk to other staff at the school.
In an unusual departure from the normal practice of appointments, the assessor also consults parents and pupils. Some might imagine pupils would be tempted to recommend only those teachers who give them an easy time, but Nigel Middleton says that does not happen. He believes pupils are good judges of teachers. "Kids can always tell you who's excellent and who's useless. If their teacher is outstanding, they are really keen to tell you about it," he says.
His method is to sit down with a small group of pupils selected by the school. They start with a general discussion of what makes a good teacher. Then he moves them on to discussing the particular candidate he is assessing. The students are not, at any time, asked to choose between two or more candidates.
Nigel Middleton sees the AST grade as a new career route towards headship. He trains people for the National Professional Qualification for Head Teachers and thinks teachers could move straight from being an AST to a headship without going through the normal route of head of department and deputy head first.
The Government is pleased with the way the scheme has started. It received a hostile reception from the profession when Labour launched the idea before the general election. But those close to Mr Blunkett believe it is now winning cautious acceptance. After the first 100 this year, the plan is for a further 2,500 in each of the next two years.
The Green Paper will confirm the "superteacher" as a permanent top grade for classroom teachers, but it is too expensive to be expanded to the majority of teachers. An interim level - a sort of semi-advanced skills teacher - will have to be devised if performance-related pay is to spread in the way Mr Blunkett wishes. However, the AST scheme has already established the methods and criteria for awarding extra pay and status for teachers who are performing well. It could prove the Trojan Horse of performance-related pay.
WHERE TO FIND THEM
NUMBER OF SUPERTEACHERS
Beauchamp College, Leicestershire 5
Calday Grange Grasmmar, Wirrall 1
Carmel RC School, Darlington 1
Chalvedon School and 6th Form College, Essex 1
Davison High, West Sussex 1
Denefield School Berkshire 1
Deacon's School, Peterborough 2
Didcot Girls' School, Oxfordshire 3
Ercall Wood School, Shropshire 1
Sowey Community College, Cornwall, 1
Prince William School, Oundle 1
George Spencer School and Technology College, Nottinghamshire 1
Hyde Technology College, Tameside 1
King Edward VII Upper School, Leicestershire 2
Latimer School, Northamptonshire 1
Mill Hill Technology School, London 1
Parkside Community College, Cambridgeshire 1
Penryn Community School, Cornwall 1
Ponteland County High School, Northumberland 1
Ravenswood School, Bromley 2
Saffron Walden County High School, Essex 2
St Angela's Ursuline Convent School, Newham 2
St Aidan's High School, Blackpool 2
St Birinus School, Oxfordshire 3
St Joseph's RC Comprehensive, South Tyneside 1
St Marylebone School, Westminster 1
Sandwich Technology School, Kent 1
Sawtry Community College, Cambridgeshire 1
Teers Technology College, Oxfordshire 1
The Greensword School, Essex 1
Thomas Alleyne's High School, Shropshire 1
Torquay Boys' Grammar School Devon 2
Tudor Grange School, Solihull 2
Woolston High School, Warrington 1