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Room for consensus;Leading Article;Opinion

Two opinion polls conducted independently this week show the Government's proposals for performance-related pay have failed to convince a majority of teachers, in spite of a blitz of Green Paper summaries and ministerial roadshows. Having tried to reach over the heads of their unions, the Government is now also seeing opinions harden among teacher leaders. Given the competition for members, no general secretary wants to be seen out of line and they now also have to keep one eye on their re-election chances - the flip side of Conservative industrial relations law.

So with just six weeks of formal consultation left and before Easter conferences hedge in union leaders even tighter, David Blunkett and Estelle Morris still have a long way to go to win the profession over. What is the Government to do?

There is still room for consensus. Many teachers want pay reform and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' survey indicated two-thirds are still unclear about what is on offer. So ministers could redouble their direct selling efforts. At the same time they must be calculating the minimum concession required to win union backing. Or they could push on regardless and risk classroom unrest in the run-up to the next election.

Tony Blair will want to stick to his guns. But which ones? After the last election he promised "what works" would prevail rather than dogma. Experience of performance pay in other countries is that it can work. But it is more likely to be an expensive and demotivating failure. Success depends upon careful planning, clear criteria that are fairly applied by trained assessors, and acceptance by teachers. Failure - including every previous attempt to introduce merit pay into British schools - is associated with authoritarian imposition from above, standards that are unclear or inconsistent, administration that is too complex or budgets that impose arbitrary limits on who qualifies.

Nothing is more divisive in the staffroom than all being paid the same regardless of effort. But as teachers point out at Morpeth school in Tower Hamlets, whose success against the odds was rightly celebrated last week (Letters, page 19), they should not have to compete for pay rises when raising standards requires teamwork. This is the crux of the issue. The Government has to demonstrate that any teacher doing a good job will receive due recognition when experience to date leads them to expect otherwise.

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