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Seaside stunts fail to impress;Easter Conferences

As Labour attempts to sweeten the pill of performance-related pay, Clare Dean and Frances Rafferty open a three-page report on the conference season

THE Government's beleaguered plans to reward high-performing teachers are "not about payment by results", schools minister Estelle Morris said this week, as she announced concessions designed to counter a fortnight of sustained union hostility.

For a government with a reputation for slick media manipulation, Labour has spun itself into dreadful difficulties over its attempts to reform teachers' pay and conditions.

While the teacher trade unions rail against what they see as performance-related pay (PRP), schools minister Estelle Morris put her accent on the positive.

"It's about a pay structure that rewards the strong teachers who have high ambitions for their pupils and who help them achieve their best. If you accept teachers make a difference, then that difference must be reflected in pupils performance because that is what the job is about," she told the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers' conference - to groans.

"Teamwork is important but good teachers do both. Teamwork shouldn't mask individual performance.

"Every teacher knows that some teachers are better than others, that some get better results and that some are more effective in the classroom. You know if you get a class taught by an effective teacher."

The trouble for education ministers is that proposals to restructure the profession were initially "spun" by No 10 - whose message to the national press was that PRP is on the way for teachers.

Delegates to the National Union of Teachers' conference in Brighton were still fuming, thanks to Prime Minister Tony Blair's assertion that he would take on the "vested interests" of the profession.

Education Secretary David Blunkett, meanwhile, sought to isolate and discredit the NUT's militant stand against the reforms when he appeared at its Easter weekend conference.

And it was left to Ms Morris, his second-in-command, to deliver the compromise to the NASUWT meeting around the south coast in Eastbourne.

The year-long delay on introducing compulsory appraisal means that it will not come in until September 2000. During the next few months the Government will be drawing up practical guidelines on how it can work.

Ministers expect to have the training in place from September 1999 and will use the extra time to make sure it works as effectively as possible.

Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman and a teacher-conference stalwart, asked : "Why didn't David Blunkett announce the concessions himself? It's all about spin and headlines, and it's almost as if he wanted to be seen to be at odds with the NUT so they would be discredited among parents."

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the NASUWT, believes that has already happened. "Strike action is very difficult because the public goes against you once the kids start going home. If we had to do something about appraisal we wouldn't strike."

Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, warned the Government that strong action was not merely a seaside stunt. But it is a game of brinkmanship all the same. The negotiations have only just started and even the NUT's position is more complicated than it might appear.

In an NUT survey of 12,000 teachers last September nearly three-quarters said salaries should be based on competencies including experience, and achievement of agreed national standards.

And as Mr de Gruchy said: "People are prepared to be bought off."

That sinking feeling: Estelle Morris tried to accentuate the positive but drew groans from delegates at Eastbourne when speaking on performance-related pay

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