Editorial - Bonuses are too crude, but that doesn't mean cash has no bearing on performance

3rd December 2010 at 00:00

Can you imagine a society in which a police officer's pay was crudely linked to the number of arrests made and a doctor's salary was dependent on the survival rate of patients? There would be some very happy coppers on student demos and an awful lot of glum Glaswegian cardiologists. To reward or penalise people for results over which they have minimal control is patently unfair.

Paying teachers according to their performance is equally wrong and ineffective, argues Professor Dylan Wiliam (page 8). Not only is it difficult to assign improvement - and consequently bonuses - to individual teachers, all the evidence suggests that throwing cash at them to improve results simply doesn't work. American guru Daniel Pink agrees: "Once you pay people enough, any additional amount of money has little impact on performance."

It would be premature, however, to conclude that there is no link between performance and pay. Many headteachers believe that they know their staff well enough to understand who is making a contribution and who is not. They may balk at paying star teachers stellar salaries, but a few - too few - are not averse to withholding pay rises from those who don't measure up, which usually induces an improvement or an eventual exit. In either case, performance is affected.

Even if we accept that using cash as a crude incentive to turn base Ds into gold Cs generally won't work - and those stratospheric Singaporeans who pay teachers a three-month bonus for excellent results clearly don't - that does not mean pay plays no part in performance. The most obvious one is hinted at in Mr Pink's use of the word "enough" - as in "I have enough money on my teacher's salary not to be swayed by offers of more of the stuff. Where would I put it?"

In the most highly regarded systems - in South Korea, Ontario, Singapore and Hong Kong, though notably not in Finland - teachers' salaries are significantly above the national average. If it is true that teachers are not chiefly motivated by cash, it is equally true that nobody was ever motivated by the lack of it. The best school systems pay above-average wages because they reflect the worth put on teaching. It is a validation of status, rather than an admission that teachers are seduced by anything as grubby as money. Decent pay is an essential concomitant to educational success, if not a direct cause of it.

Teachers in Britain are paid a little above the national average wage. After a two-year wage freeze and a pensions contribution hike, their relative position will probably decline. So if good pay, on the international evidence, is a necessary component of status and high professional repute is, according to the Government, essential to an excellent education system, how can school performance improve if teachers do not have "enough" now and will most likely have less later? Answers on a postcard ... gerard.kelly@tsleducation.com.

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