Don't link pay with appraisal;Opinion

12th February 1999 at 00:00
Doug McAvoy rejects the plans for performance-related salaries, described by Education Secretary David Blunkett in last week's TES

OF COURSE teachers make a difference to the learning of their pupils. No one would be daft enough to suggest otherwise. As the old car sticker said:

"If you can read this, thank a teacher."

What they cannot do is overcome the impact of factors external to the school over which teachers have no control. Those factors may be constant, they can be changing. Equally, the degree of impact they have on a child's learning can fluctuate, with the significance of any given factor changing with time.

This Government, principally through the Prime Minister, repeatedly denigrates teachers. Its language is locked into talk of failing schools and mediocre teachers. It accuses teachers of using poverty as an excuse for failure.

The reality is very different. Teachers in the most deprived areas are among the most dedicated professionals in the public services. The factors that are set against educational achievement are challenges that bring out the most committed and inspirational teaching.

The Prime Minister's charge that teachers use poverty as an excuse for failure is an outrage. Poverty is the obstacle against which teachers battle every day.

In the dim and distant days of John Patten's tenure at the Department for Education, in response to research carried out for the National Union of Teachers by Leeds University, he conceded that external factors influenced pupils' achievement. Sadly, he refrained from spelling out the factors he had in mind.

But given his government's claim that class size did not matter (a factor teachers do not control) it is not surprising that he forbore to mention what they were.

This Government has acknowledged the importance of those factors and is to be commended for the efforts it is making to address them. Those efforts include a determined expansion of nursery education, limits on class sizes, homework clubs, encouraging parents to support their children's education, and classroom assistants.

Each of these has a profound influence on pupil achievement but teachers cannot change them any more than they can change a child's season of birth to ensure all are born in the winter.

The Government's difficulty, and the reason resistance is growing to its Green Paper proposals on performance-related pay linked to payment by results, is that these factors cannot be screened out in determining the difference a teacher makes.

And the Government can't avoid the fact that teachers work co-operatively, building on each other's work, both within schools and throughout a pupil's education.

Education Secretary David Blunkett is disingenuous if he thinks teachers will be persuaded to accept the unacceptable by promises of "an initial salary uplift of up to 10 per cent" (TES, February 5) on passing the performance threshold. The Government's technical paper admits there will be a "sizeable minority" who will not cross that threshold. Teachers will note the "up to 10 per cent".

They also know that while Mr Blunkett talks of 250,000 teachers being able "to apply" to cross the performance threshold, there are already 260,000 at or above that threshold. Again, note the words "to apply".

Teachers' maths is good enough to work out how much opportunity for significant increases is really on offer through the Green Paper.

The Government has rationed its performance-related pay ensuring that the benefits cannot apply to every good teacher. Indeed, it has decided in advance how many teachers will benefit and therefore how many teachers can be deemed "good".

It is also distorting the purpose of appraisal by linking the system with pay. Underfunding by successive governments has pulled the plug on appraisal, leading to its limited use. Even so, there remain acceptable schemes linked to identifying teachers' professional development needs.

For many teachers, appraisal is the only opportunity for a neutral interview with their "manager" where strengths and weaknesses can be identified without threats of discipline or financial disadvantage muddying the discussion. A proper, professional discussion about the teacher's future development is possible only in those circumstances.

The linking of appraisal with pay will end all that. Appraisals will be more like job interviews than tools for professional development and teachers will not trust them. They are likely to view such appraisals as challenges to their income and salary progression rather than opportunities to address their professional needs.

Doug McAvoy is general secretary of the NUT

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