Harness the force for good

2nd June 2000 at 01:00
Andrew Cunningham declares his support for performance pay and warns that independent schools cannot afford to ignore it.

OVER the past weeks I've felt like an endangered species - the only teacher in Britain who still believes in performance-related pay. As a long-standing supporter, I've been amazed at how few of my colleagues in the independent sector agree with PRP. From heads to NQTs, opinion is dead-set against it.

The arguments seem to mirror those in the state sector exactly. The views of David Derbyshire, head of Denstone College in Staffordshire, are typical. He declares himself "utterly against it", calling it "highly divisive" and a "back-door way of paying teachers more". Independent schools may not, as yet, be directly affected by PRP - but there is no doubt that its introduction in the state sector could have massive implications.

The first is PRP's likely effect on the perennially knotty problem of fees. Most independents already pay slightly higher salaries to staff. If they had to fund higher salaries still, playing post-PRP "catch-up", the pass-on to parents would be yet another fee increase. One independent head I spoke to, Peter de Voil of Frensham Heights, estimated PRP could lead to a further 8 per cent rise. This would be hugely unpopular, and could even lead to closures of smaller schools.

The second implication for independents could be the increased competition they'd face from a state sector offering its staff much better pay and conditions. At present, as recent reports have highlighted, the independent sector is booming. But as teachers and parents - led by the compelling lure of better pay and results - look increasingly to a rejuvenated state sector, PRP could break down the Great Educational Divide between state and private.

For example, few teachers currently cross over from one side of this divide to the other but how long will this hold, as they seek to benefit from incentives on offer elsewhere? Nigel Richardson, head of the top academic boys' school, The Perse, in Cambridge, said very few of his staff now move on to jobs in the maintained sector, but it would be very foolish to assume this would always be the case.

In fact, I can see PRP's introduction leading to a golden age of pay and prospects for the committed career teacher. With state and independent schools both vying for the best possible staff with increasingly competitive pay deals, good teachers (and that means the vast majority) are bound to benefit.

And to be honest, pay is becoming the prime concern in the profession. Takemy own example. When I started teaching as one half of a "dinky" couple (that's double-income-no-kids for any NQTs), money was not an issue. Now it is. As raising a family grows financially harder, so too do attitudes on pay. Now pound;2,000 seems a lot of money, especially for teachers with young families - the difference between Florida Disneyland and no holiday at all. There's no way I could afford to kiss goodbye to two grand. PRP still looks the most realistic way to deliver more money to most ordinary teachers.

But the main reason I support PRP so firmly is because it is bound to happen. Market pressures make PRP inevitable so why not reap the benefits?

These market pressures are at their most irresistible in the private sector. A few schools can still stand aloof on ivory-tower endowments but the overwhelming majority are totally reliant on fee income, and the steady stream of new pupils needed to provide it. The "numbers game" is one sport no independent can afford to lose.

Thus the pressures leading to PRP's inexorable introduction run as follows:

Today's job market is frighteningly competitive. Results are more important: not only in the "real world" but, crucially, in the perceptions of all concerned parents. Rightly or wrongly, results are the be-all and end-all. Indeed this year, with the compulsory testing of all seven, 11 and 14-year olds and national exams as 16 and 18, results have been shown to rule the educational roost more than ever.

The teaching profession, in the much-hyped jamboree of the league tables, faces the most high-profile, widely-available statistics on performance of any workforce in Britain. Like it or not, these league tables put collective school reputations on the line in a way no other "sales force" has to face. Parents pore over these results with religious zeal - and are quick to point the finger.

Teachers are seen as the single most significant factor in influencing results. Financial incentives for teachers to improve results are therefore inevitable. The long-term alternative, particularly in the private sector, will be nose-diving numbers and ultimately school closures.

The great irony about PRP is that, once the short-term furore has passed, it will prove a force for good in education: leading to better pay and conditions for committed career teachers, and improved standards and results for the kids themselves. Who could disagree with such beneficial outcomes, even from such a despised development?

Dr Andrew Cunningham teaches at Cranleigh independent school in Surrey

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