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Let's nurse teachers;Leading Article;Opinion

The teachers' pay award for 1999, coming in the midst of the consultation on the Green Paper, is inevitably something of a holding operation - the last one on the old pay scale before the new structure (if accepted) becomes a reality.

Seen in this light, the 4.5 per cent says little about government priorities other than a wish not to antagonise teachers by phasing their settlement again - while making it clear that big money isn't on the cards unless it is performance-related.

Although the parallel is not exact, comparing the position of teachers and nurses is instructive. Nurses too have been promised higher pay and a revamped career structure - mainly because the 8,000 vacancies in the profession give rise to cancelled operations, closed wards, patients on trolleys in hospital corridors and doom-laden headlines.

Nurses are not publicly berated for the failings of their service. Where are their performance indicators? What are their targets? Who inspects them? Is the fact that the working classes have a shorter life expectancy laid at the door of the medical profession? Far from it; the public assumption is that poor people should look after themselves better, not that they suffer from a lower standard of medical care.

This is not an exercise in nurse-bashing, but simply to point out that recurrent NHS crises are nearly always put down to under-funding. Yet schools in poor areas which may have struggled for years with inadequate facilities or personnel are not allowed such an excuse.

Of course incompetent teachers should not blame the social class of their pupils. But it is clear that the best dentist in the world can only achieve a limited amount - if a child's teeth are already blackened from a diet of sweets and fizzy drinks. When a child arrives at school barely able to speak and not knowing how to hold a book, the challenge for his or her teachers is to compensate for five years of neglect.

A remarkable number succeed in this - and a genuine appreciation of their achievements would go a long way towards reconciling them to the implications of the Green Paper. Unsurprisingly, teachers who already feel that their successes go unrecognised have little faith that performance-related pay will really go to those who deserve it.

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