Tony Blair is a man who likes his reforms quickly set in motion and neatly sewn up. The Prime Minister has nailed his colours to the mast over performance-related pay for teachers, but he and his ministers know the unions dislike any link between salary and pupil performance. Neither are heads happy at taking on the extra work of staff appraisal when they already feel stretched to the limit.
So the Government is looking to the United States to produce a solution to what could become an impasse. He and David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, know that if they try to rush PRP through too fast, they will not carry teacher opinion with them.
Earlier this year, civil servants were in secret talks with Allan Odden, an international expert on payment systems at the University of Wisconsin. He has been advising on a PRP scheme in Florida so the Department for Education and Employment decided to pick his brains.
And, as reported in The TES three weeks ago, Hay Management Consultants, a multi-national company, has been asked to visit schools in Britain, to draw up criteria for staff and headteacher appraisal.
Harry Tomlinson, professor of education at Leeds Metropolitan University, believes the Government could learn useful lessons from the United States, where a small number of such schemes appear to be working successfully, for instance in Kentucky and in Douglas County, Colorado.
Douglas County's performance-pay scheme is now in its sixth year. Initially, as in this country, its teachers were fearful the new system would not prove to be fair, says Ellen Bartlett, the district's assistant superintendent for human resources. But many of these tensions were alleviated because 20 teachers, chosen by the teaching union, were invited to design the system, along with 10 representatives from the local authority and local business community.
A system of bonus payments was devised, with bonuses for satisfactory teacher performance, outstanding performance, and extra work, as well as for good group performance (taking some account of pupil performance).
The first year was "very difficult", says Ellen Bartlett, and the second "quite difficult". But now between 75 and 80 per cent of the county's teachers receive a bonus of some kind. "The scheme is making a difference, because teachers are doing what we want them to do and they feel good about being rewarded for it."
Douglas Hartman, president of Douglas County's main teaching union, the Colorado Federation of Teachers, says it has taken several years to build teachers' confidence in the scheme, which although "still not perfect, has worked well and has been widely accepted".
Over here, the Green Paper proposals on pay have not had a warm reception from the teaching unions. The National Union of Teachers is most vociferous in its refusal to countenance any system that links pay to pupils' results.
The NASUWT, the second biggest union, is holding fire for the time being, but its leadership believes the Government's proposals are too unwieldy to work.
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers was somewhat mollified by the announcement at Easter that compulsory appraisal will be delayed by a year - it will now be introduced in September 2000. But Peter Smith, its general secretary, maintains that the Government is being too impatient. It should, he says, consider more carefully the advice from the Confederation of British Industry: first develop an effective performance management system before linking appraisal to pay.
"While the issue of pay is clearly important," says John Cridland, the confederation's director of human resources policy, "it should not automatically be considered as integral to the process, at least until the performance-management system has bedded down".
Harry Tomlinson agrees that there is an argument in favour of delaying the link to pay "but the money is there now, and we can't know that it will still be there shortly after the next election".
Teacher-appraisal schemes in British schools are patchy, he acknowledges. Despite a funding boost for appraisal in the early Nineties, schemes failed to take off and were later judged by OFSTED and the Teacher Training Agency not to be working. Some schools may be practising a fairly gentle form of staff development, he says, but there is little or no "rigorous evaluation of the quality of teacher performance, holding people accountable when they are not working well".
Pat Jones, now headteacher of Henleaze infants school in Bristol, had experience of Avon's appraisal scheme in the early Nineties at a previous school. It was cumbersome, complex and time-consuming, she says. It involved teachers spending too much time out of their classrooms, which was costly as well as unsettling for children . The teachers disliked it because "they felt it was an imposed system that was not benefiting them".
Pat Jones now runs her own system, setting targets with each teacher at the beginning of each term; but she feels it would be very divisive if these meetings were in any way linked to pay.
What the Government has perhaps underestimated is how much it will take to change the culture in British schools so that an appraisal system linked to pay is not regarded as threatening. Building greater trust between teachers and managers is also a substantial task. In a survey last year by the ATL, only 51 per cent of teachers agreed that their heads recognise and acknowledge when they have done a job well.
Valerie Bragg, principal of Kingshurst City Technology College in Birmingham, struggled with a PRP system for about a year in the late Eighties.
"It was fraught with problems: how do you know if you've got it right, in terms of who gets the rewards?" she asks.
Instead of abandoning it altogether, she maintained some linkage between pay and annual teacher performance (there is no link with pupil results), and has modified it into a more flexible, more discreet system.
"The appraisal is very much a personal matter, where staff review themselves, and we try very hard not to link that to pay. Pay is based on their performance during the year, which we monitor. This way it doesn't seem to have caused a problem, and I have been able to give some people big rises."
PRINCIPLES FOR A SUCCESSFUL PRP SYSTEM
According to Allan Odden, the man flown over the from the University of Wisconsin to advise the DFEE, successful performance pay systems need:
* To involve all the key parties. Teaching unions and the public should have a hand in designing and implementing the system.
* Adequate funding. Extra money is needed to pay for the changeover.
* Training. If you want staff to improve their skills, then you have to help them achieve such. It will cost about 2 to 3 per cent of your operating budget.
* No quotas. These are the bane of such systems. All schools or staff reaching a target must be rewarded.
* Persistence. Most plans contain initial bugs that need to be worked out.
Taken from 'Paying Teachers for What They Know and Do' by Allan Odden and Carolyn Kelley, Corwin Press, 1997