Could it be over for the threshold?

24th October 2003 at 01:00
The pay hike for experienced teachers introduced three years ago could become harder to earn from next September because the cash will no longer be ringfenced. Adi Bloom reports

Chris Brown's department achieved the highest GCSE results in his school last year. "We had the best pass rate of all subjects," the 26-year-old says. "So I welcome any chance to prove to my colleagues what I do well now, and what I can do well in the future. I think that's important for any teacher."

Mr Brown has just taken over as head of information technology at Colne community school in Essex, after five years in the profession. Even after such a short time he has already reached the top of the main teachers' pay scale, because he has a first-class degree from Salford University, along with considerable experience volunteering at an inner-city comprehensive while taking his degree.

This term, he will apply to cross the threshold into the upper pay scale."It's another string to your bow," he explains. "It's a step in my leadership development, another way of saying I'm a good teacher."

Mr Brown is one of approximately 60,000 who this year have reached the top of the main pay scale and become eligible to cross the threshold. The performance-related scheme was introduced in September 2000, intended to provide experienced and effective teachers with a rise of over pound;2,000, and access to a higher salary range.

To qualify, teachers are expected to meet eight national standards of effective classroom practice outlined by the Department for Education and Skills. Assessment is conducted through accumulation of relevant evidence by the teacher, alongside performance reviews, such as classroom observation.

More than 200,000 teachers submitted applications for the first round of threshold payments in 2000 when the huge rump of experienced teachers were rewarded for the quality of their work. The following year, 31,200 applications were received.

But, last September, the existing nine-point main scale was replaced by a new, six-point version. This means that staff are now reaching the top of the main scale more quickly, leaving a greater number eligible for progression. Those seeking a step-up for next September need to submit applications to their heads by December 1.

"It's another thing to do: yet more paperwork," says Mr Brown, acknowledging the difficulty of timetabling a threshold application into a day already filled with marking, lesson-planning and bureaucratic form-filling.

But the amount of extra-curricular work required can vary. Teachers' unions are often willing to help applicants compile their threshold evidence, guiding them through the various requirements.

"Teachers often fall down over planning," says John Bangs, head of education for the NUT. "You need to show you've thought about it.

"It's also important to include examples of pupils' individual work: if you put up evidence, you've got to be able to back it up. And teachers need to be aware of breaking educational issues beyond their own school."

Many schools also provide training for threshold applicants. Nicola Shingleton, in her sixth year as a biology teacher, says that the applications have been simplified considerably by in-school preparation for staff at Honywood comprehensive in Colchester, Essex. All staff, whatever their salary level, are offered guidance in preparing folders of work that demonstrate their achievements.

"The school has given us a breakdown of what's required, and we're able to use non-pupil days to prepare it," says Ms Shingleton. "You know what's needed so, when a child does a particularly good piece of work, you can photocopy it and slip it into your folder as you go along.

"I'll also be having a meeting with my head of department to discuss whether I've left anything out. It's time-consuming, but I know I'm doing it for my professional development."

But the degree to which the threshold exercise does benefit teachers'

careers is debatable. To date, around 95 per cent of teachers who apply are successful. To many, therefore, it is merely an extra bureaucratic hurdle that stands between teachers and their money.

"The fact that most teachers go through the threshold actually invalidates the whole procedure," says Mr Bangs. "This system is designed to prove whether teachers are good at their jobs. But what it actually shows is that they're all pretty good anyway. The Government should just consolidate the extra money into teachers' basic pay."

But, argues Nicola Shingleton, the procedure gives the more capable teachers the chance to progress further: "Going through the threshold is just jumping through hoops. But the upper pay scale can be very difficult to get through. Upper pay Points 2 and 3 are given to people who really excel.

"If you're good at the job and you work hard, why shouldn't you be paid more? It happens in industry, and this is just another industry. If we aren't turning out academic students, the whole country will grind to a halt."

But many in the profession fear that the threshold may not continue as a reward for success. Changes in government funding mean that, from next September, money will no longer be ringfenced for upper pay spine salaries.

Instead, the DfES has proposed that threshold payments should be delegated into school budgets.

"There's some anxiety about whether school budgeting problems are going to affect the threshold," says John Howson, visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University. "If heads haven't got the money, they will find excuses for not putting people through. The Government will have to decide whether it wants more people working in schools or fewer, better-paid teachers. It could be a real problem."

Tampering with the system could lead to a battle between the Government and the unions. "We could end up with large numbers of schools with real disputes between heads and teachers," says Mr Bangs. "It's a recipe for division."

But, though aware that they may be the last cohort of teachers to be guaranteed threshold payments, few of this year's applicants are planning lavish extravagances with their pound;2,000.

"I don't think it will make a huge difference to my life," says Mr Brown.

"It goes towards putting my salary in line with other professions. I expect it will just be absorbed with tax increases. Though it might buy me an extra curry a month."

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