Fools rush in

30th January 1998 at 00:00
While praising the Government's desire for change, Peter Smith warns against introducing the advanced teacher grade too quickly

The Government's determination to push forward its bold programme of educational change is understandable and impressive. As ministers justifiably claim, much of what was pledged in the pre-election manifesto has at least been initiated.

But in its anxiety to deliver on promises and lever up standards, the Government needs to accept that the decision to do it fast runs a high risk of doing it wrong - and nowhere is the Government more likely to trip up than over its determination to introduce a new advanced skills teacher grade to far too tight a deadline.

A clear warning signal is that all previous attempts to target pay towards high-performing classroom practitioners have failed. The mid-1970s saw the introduction of a senior teacher scale. The intention was to reward well-qualified, experienced and effective classroom practitioners who did not aspire to be heads or deputies and had nowhere to go but sideways. At the time many welcomed the move. The result? The creation of a third (and often unnecessary) management tier. In the secondary sector, the very teachers who were supposed to be better rewarded for their contribution to the core business of any school - teaching children - were paid more to do less of it. The grade was virtually unknown in primary schools.

Much later came incentive allowances. Another flop. The additional money which Kenneth Baker claimed would create substantially more promotion opportunities largely leaked into the costs of moving from one pay structure to another. Intended to motivate, they were widely seen as an insult - particularly the Pounds 501 allowance, all that was available in most primaries. Many heads decided that they could not identify any fair basis for awarding an allowance to one teacher as against another. In some schools they were paid in rotation, a kind of pass-the-parcel.

More recently, "excellence" points were introduced. Yet another non-starter. Without clear and objective criteria for deciding who should be granted them and enough money to award them to all who might qualify, heads and governors have shied away.

Why have schools been so fiercely reluctant to move away from a pay philosophy which principally rewards teachers for carrying a responsibility rather than any other reason? In the relatively small and intimate personnel environments which even the largest schools are, rewarding responsibility depersonalises the decision making over pay. Identifying responsibilities and rewarding who discharges them can be represented as an objective and therefore fair and justifiable process. You can write down responsibilities, you can rank them in size and value, and you can see whether they really exist and whether they are being carried out. If you have money to play with you can identify a few more responsibilities.

That is the theory. The reality is inevitably more complex. The truth is, of course, that responsibility is often used as a proxy for some other reason - including paying good teachers more because you don't want to lose them.

But if the connection between pay and responsibility is accepted by teachers even when it is either tenuous or fictitious, why change? What is the problem to which we need a solution? What is wrong with the present culture that more money would not solve?

Plenty. There are many schools in which the deployment of staff has been seriously distorted by historic decisions justified at the time as rewarding responsibility when the real reason was quite different. The result for far too many teachers is demotivating career blockage in schools whose management structures have become needlessly over-elaborate.

A second problem is that the really dominating influence on what teachers are paid is not what responsibilities they discharge or how effective they are, but the size of the institution in which they happen to teach. Put bluntly, you can be the brightest classroom star in the educational firmament, but if you teach in a small rural primary what you are paid will be permanently capped. That, for many women teachers, is the real glass ceiling.

The third problem the Government has identified. Ministers are absolutely right to suggest that headship should not be the only goal for the able, ambitious teacher. There is an urgent need to create a career structure which rewards classroom performance. That is as important in the primary sector as in the secondary if we really are going to hit, and keep on hitting, the Government's highly ambitious literacy and numeracy targets.

Developing the advanced skills teacher concept is an approach worth exploring, but only within the context of a fully-thought-through human resource strategy for the teaching profession. Having watched the mistakes of their predecessors, this Government really shouldn't need to be told that.

The Department for Education and Employment was absolutely right when, in its evidence to the review body last September, it argued "the successful creation of a new grade of teacher requires careful consideration and consultation and (that) this should not be undertaken in a hurried manner". Its subsequent volte face, its attempt to disguise an eleventh-hour direction to the board as merely fresh evidence, its attempt to pressurise the School Teachers' Review Body to come up with detailed recommendations in less than a month (with a strong hint that if the review body didn't, ministers would push ahead anyway) makes no sense whatsoever. What is more, I have no difficulty in imagining what David Blunkett would have said if Gillian Shephard had pulled the same stroke.

The review body deserves commendation for its refusal to knuckle under to such a tight deadline. I hope it will be equally robust when it submits its supplementary report in March. Is the Government's desire to get the first education action zones justification enough for major, untried changes to teachers' pay and conditions? What would currently be wrong with as little adjustment as is needed to permit experiments to roll forward?

And, if the first five zones in which advanced skills teachers will be working are genuinely to be experimental, why is the DFEE "evidence" so precisely directive? Why should there, right from the outset, be a separate pay spine for advanced skills teachers? Would it not make greater sense, initially at least, to use points from the heads' and deputies' spine? Why is it stipulated that ASTs should not be employed by local education authorities or action zones? Would it not make greater sense for them to be seconded into a base school and make for far greater flexibility? What happens to an advanced skills teacher employed in a zone on terms and conditions outside the Teachers' Pay and Conditions Document when the zone comes to an end? And if there is only to be a minority of ASTs, how small will that minority be? If it is (as I suspect it will be) very small, how will that make classroom teaching an attractive career option to the majority?

These are not the nit-picking questions of a pedant or professional carper. I am simply arguing that to convert something from concept to operational reality is the toughest part of any change and the very last thing to rush. The gamble simply isn't worth it.

This Government was long enough in opposition to have learned four clear lessons. One, attempting to impose culture change not only does not work, it can be counter-productive. Two, you cannot simultaneously give heads and governors the freedom to manage and then try to dictate to them how they should do it. Three, failures can come expensive but there is no such thing as cheap success. Four, there is a critical difference between a new initiative and what is beginning to look suspiciously like a wheeze.

Peter Smith is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

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