Emulate Victorians;Opinion

10th April 1998 at 01:00
At a time when there is so much concern about the pantechnicons of paperwork clogging up the education system we are loath to suggest that anyone should do any extra reading. But it does appear that Margaret Hodge, the outspoken chairwoman of the Commons Select Committee on Education, may need to spend more time in the Commons library before she makes her next important speech.

For last Thursday Mrs Hodge did something remarkable: she managed to make teachers even more disgruntled than they already were. While they were voting for action in protest at over-exposure to after-school meetings and all manner of report-writing activities, Mrs Hodge was adding to teachers' woes by proposing that their pay should in future be dependent on inspectors' ratings and pupils' results.

Her timing was deliciously ironic because it is exactly 100 years since a stake was finally driven through the heart of the notorious Victorian "payment-by-results" system. But it is unlikely that she was aware of the anniversary: someone with a stronger grasp of education history would surely not have advocated such an eccentric policy.

The original results-related system of funding elementary schools was introduced in the Revised Code of 1862, which stipulated that every scholar for whom grants were claimed had to be examined by an inspector in reading, writing and arithmetic. And though the funding system staggered on in modified forms for more than 30 years, the poet Matthew Arnold, the most illustrious of all English school inspectors, never withdrew the critical conclusion he reached in 1867:

"A change in the Education Department's regulations which, by making two-thirds of the government grant dependent upon a mechanical examination, inevitably gives a mechanical turn to the school teaching, a mechanical turn to the inspection I More free play for the inspector, and more free play, in consequence, for the teacher is what is wanted."

But that was all unimaginably long ago, some may say. What does it matter if the Victorians had more liberal views on education than some Labour politicians do today? The important questions are whether such a salary system could be established, and if it could, would it help to raise education standards? The answer to both questions is almost certainly "No".

Even OFSTED's own research has shown that two inspectors will quite often disagree on the grade that a lesson merits. It therefore seems especially odd to hear Mrs Hodge, who has lately been at loggerheads with the chief inspector, stating that a teacher's salary could be partly based on an OFSTED team's judgment.

The connection between teaching prowess and children's results may seem - superficially - to be a more objective measure. But no statistician has yet devised a "value-added" formula that unfailingly reveals exactly how much an individual class teacher has contributed to his or her pupils' development. Many other variables have to be considered, such as family background, school ethos, the socio-economic status of fellow pupils, and input from other peripatetic and part-time staff.

Of course, the Government could always try to circumvent that problem by emulating the state of Kentucky which awarded cash bonuses to schools - rather than individual teachers. But in each of the Kentucky schools visited by researchers assessing the impact of the scheme three years ago the division of the spoils had proved inordinately time-consuming, and sometimes disastrously divisive.

At one school the teachers decided not to share any money with "below-stairs" colleagues. As a result, they and the classroom assistants could no longer look one another in the eye - and the cooks stopped speaking to everyone.

Suffice to say, both Matthew Arnold and Kentucky have seen different versions of Mrs Hodge's future, and neither worked. David Blunkett probably realises that, but just to remove any lingering doubt he should signal that Mrs Hodge's idea is not a practicable option.

If he is serious about trying to improve teachers' morale he will also acknowledge that the bureaucracy of teaching has become unacceptably bloated in recent years - a fact that was recognised by the recent Government working group report on this problem. Of course he could draw attention to the low voting figures in the NUT and NASUWT workload ballots that came out in favour of action. But there is no pressing need to score points of this kind. Easter, after all, is a time for generosity and mutual understanding - even though the teacher union conferences may sometimes suggest otherwise.

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