Don't mention the...

9th June 2000 at 01:00
Applications for crossing the pay threshold had to be in last Monday. In the second of an occasional series, a headteacher reports on life in the staffroom leading up to June 5, while Ian Whitwham decides to uphold standards.

It's reminiscent of a scene from the First World War. The eerie, silent figures moving about as the full horror of what is about to come slowly dawns on the unwilling participants. The forced cheerfulness of the messages home that it will soon be over. Well, we shall soon know how many of our brave colleagues have decided to go over the top and apply to pass through the threshold.

Discussions about principle and the brief burst of indignation at the Easter union conferences have quickly evaporated. I cannot spot a single conscientious objector; colleague heads have not reported many sightings either.

Speculation that most teachers eligible to apply will do so has now hardened into a certainty. The Government's gamble that pound;2,000 will be enough to crack it has come off. The training is over and the moment of truth has arrived.

The atmosphere in the staffroom is positively surreal. There are an awful lot of furtive conversations and meetings. I have emphasised over and over again, just as the video told me I should, that as headteacher I cannot be consulted about applications.

I just wish the staff would not take it quite so damn literally. My arrival in the staffroom used to promote lots of jocular comment along the lines of: "Must go now, boss, can't stop to chat, lots of lessons to prepare."

now all I get is averted glances and a disappearing act. I am starting to imagine them saying: "Don't mention the threshold. I did, but I think I got away with it."

I am worried about the effect this is going to have on those precious characters that no doubt all schools have. It is noticeable how the "My best teacher" feature in Friday magazine consistently shows how we remember best the unconventional, the enthusiast, the teacher who, if the truth be told, is slightly potty.

What about the lovely guy who let it be known that he is cycling round the world without leaving his front room? He could only be a teacher. He has so far completed 35,000 miles on his exercise bike and just missed the earthquakes in Turkey and the war in Sierra Leone. He paces himself by watching videos of the Tour de France and passes the time marking his pupils' work. Guess what that will look like on the form. But I dare say his classes love him.

Our eccentric, a hugely successful teacher, proudly told me last year that an upper-sixth leaver had paid him a special compliment along the lines of, "Please, Mr P, promise me that you will never learn how to teach properly". Sadly, I doubt whether even he would dare to say the same now.

So now the first big question has been resolved - that most eligible teachers will apply - attention turns to the next $64,000 (or pound;2,000 in this case) question - what percentage will be approved?

Hidden within that uncertainty is the dilemma facing the teacher who has serious doubts as to whether an application will be successful. When the full story is told it will be interesting to see how many schools gave advance warning to teachers and how many played it by the book. And how will the external threshold assessor know?

If a 100 per cent success rate will be viewed with suspicion, better not tip anybody off - leave a few sacrificial lambs in the field. I am praying for more than 40 applicants. I can then ask to be deferred until the end of October. Heads of smaller schools with fewer applicant cannot. I am sure they will be delighted to tell me what percentage of their applicants have met the standards. Answers on a postcard please.

The writer is head of a large comprehensive in the north of England A teacher of fierce integrity told me I hadto apply to cross the threshold. "You'd be madnot to."

This became the prevailing staff wisdom. Yes, it was another nonsense, another betrayal, one more fresh hell. But defiance was pointless. So get real and apply. Or become an Untouchable and never work again. You might as well wear a "Can't teach, won't teach" T-shirt.

My school, once a fortress of principle, became a palace of whispers. The decent and battered became pusillanimous and skulked off to pick up the application form.

Why were they sleeping with the enemy?

A mean piece in favour of performance-related pay, inveighing against the clapped-out and elderly, appeared in one national broadsheet. Man U were the best team - and performance-related. Roy Keane was cited. He gets more money in a first half than I do in a year. I wish I could set him on the union.

The school became shifty and rancorous and we were carted off for a whole day to endure specious homilies on the threshold. Perky types in perky suits blithely instructed us how to market our skills.

We were invited to "revisit Dubin's Dichotomies". No one laughed. We were urged to make "unconscious" competences "conscious". No one laughed. Some of my best teachers were of dubious consciousness.

I can still remember my old English teacher conducting inspired, if plastered, lessons on Marlowe. He'd probably be done under clause 28 these days. He'd certainly have blown the threshold.

This was most dispiriting. I sought sanctuary in the union handout. Our leader beamed smugly, reaffirmed his "opposition" to PRP and urged us to apply. The application form itself was worse, a creep's charter. Couched in the new high gibberish, it urged us to sell our conscious competencies for a few dollars more. We were invited to suggest a pedagogical repertoire associated with Jesus, Socrates, the Naked Chef and Colonel Tom Parker.

Now we await the external assessors. Just when we thought we were rid of the spies, voyeurs, quislings, the borough and Ofsted parts one and two - they're back in December. The same whey-faced squad of failed teachers. They've got the contract out on us. A nice little earner. We could buy books and roofs and computers with all their money. And teachers. We need teachers. They're going AWOL and bonkers. It's all that assessment.

In the meantime we will endure performance management and internal assessors - our fellow staff. The school will mushroom with mentors and monitors. They will lurk and whisper. Sleek line managers will stalk us down corridors to inform us that we are marginally late for something or other. Prim students will inform on us. I will have to be conspicuously busy and acquire a clipboard.

I will have to attend and stay awake in workshops, task forces, action groups and skills audits when I should be watching Euro 2000. The corridors are already full of self-aggrandising, earnest types banging on about their conscious competencies, their on-task classrooms, their results and how they never have trouble with the more famously psychotic and erring of inmates.

How gifted and talented they might be.

They'll be back on the beta-blockers and booze. It is a most drear inquisition. which is why I couldn't fill in the form. Standards must be maintained.

Ian Whitwham teaches in a west London comprehensive

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