Editorial - Whisper it, but performance pay might be good news

28th September 2012 at 01:00

Some time ago I dropped by a secondary school to visit a head I know. On the coffee table in his office was a time-worn copy of our esteemed organ. Why, I asked him, was it not an up-to-date edition? He pointed to the front page and explained that he liked to have it hanging around for any passing governors to see. "Birth of the #163;200K head," ran the headline.

The point of this story is that this isn't a head who's in it for the wonga. No, this is a committed school leader who achieves excellent results in a deprived area. I have little doubt he would willingly do the gig for peanuts if it came to it. However, this head most certainly does have a sense of his own value. He works long hours in a difficult environment and pulls off brilliant outcomes. And, not unreasonably, he thinks he should be well recompensed.

This is a senior leader who believes, correctly, that his should be a highly paid profession and that there is a role for cash as a reward in school staff pay - but not, perhaps, as an incentive.

A reward, not an incentive. This is a minor difference, but an important one when addressing the issue of performance-related pay for teachers. It allows us to differentiate between payment by results (perhaps #163;500 for every C grade in maths) and payment by performance (which might reward working that extra hour and general commitment to the cause).

This is the subtle - and, admittedly, awkward - debate that Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted top dog, forced his size 10s into last weekend.

Ofsted has found, he told Saturday's Times, that in 2011 some 40 per cent of lessons were not up to scratch. "And yet everyone is getting a pay rise."

"As a head, I would make it clear that if you teach well or try to teach well, if you work hard and go the extra mile, you are going to get paid well," he added. "Somebody who is out the gate at three o'clock in the afternoon is not."

Sir Michael could certainly have used more constructive language and his argument is also slightly confused. Indeed, it is less than helpful to imply that come the end of the last lesson teachers' first priority is to be home in time for Deal or No Deal. But what it appears he is actually trying to say is that hard work should be rewarded. Not just results, but commitment. Performance pay, not results pay.

And if this is Sir Michael's thought process, he is on the side of political momentum both in Britain, where the government is pushing the idea hard, and in the US, where the number of school boards adopting it is snowballing.

The evidence from America as to whether or not it works is conflicted. Some schools have seen very real improvements in results, while others have seen nothing (pages 26-30). There are also examples where the bureaucracy has been allowed to become too simplistic - too attached to raw data - and good teachers have suffered. An acceptable performance pay structure should allow for the possibility of a pay rise even after a disappointing set of results.

The point is not about what might go wrong, nor is it about creating a system containing even more high stakes. It is about the possibility of a pay arrangement in which committed, determined teachers are rewarded for their hard work.

And that might just be worth a try.


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