Ministers' vision of our future adds up to zero

9th December 2011 at 00:00

This government came to power on a promise that it would trust teachers, reward their efforts and treat them with respect. Their hard work would be rewarded by fair pay and pensions. The best generation of teachers would prosper, leading more stimulating professional lives.

What a difference a year makes. You can hear the collective sigh in staffrooms across the country: "It's just one damn thing after another."

Set aside schools minister Nick Gibb's growing reputation for popping into classrooms and complaining about the wrong phonics scheme, children using calculators, or not using textbooks - just picture the scene if health secretary Andrew Lansley popped into an operating theatre and instructed the surgeons. Set aside education secretary Michael Gove's relentless talking down of England's schools. This year he and I participated in an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development summit for the top 20 national education performers in the developed world; it is strange that our top 20 position is not revealed in Government press statements.

Even set aside, just for a moment of course, the damaging and unnecessary dispute on pensions that has angered and distracted education staff. Because this week's sigh is about pay. Traditionally, teachers' career decisions are not mainly motivated by pay. They're not that kind of people. But the ATL's young members tell us that student debt is changing attitudes. So while many teachers sigh at real-terms pay cuts for an extra two years, believing the pain is shared, many more get angry at the finance industry where different rules apply.

There will be a lot more than sighs if the incoming head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, gets his way. While the profession has accepted the threshold as a one-off check on good performance, it will not accept the excessive monitoring of every aspect of a teacher's classroom practice that will become endemic as heads seek to justify yearly progression up the pay scale through ever more intrusive monitoring practices. All to show the inspector that management judgments of teacher performance are based on sound evidence.

There is overwhelming evidence across a range of white-collar jobs that performance-related pay demotivates and would be particularly damaging in a job where teamwork is now crucial. What worries me is the propensity for this Government to disregard the evidence in its ideological tunnel.

Teaching is a national profession

Regional pay would produce endless tinkering as recruitment and retention figures moved about with each change, and teachers would never know how a career move might turn out financially. If national businesses like banks and supermarkets don't dabble in regional pay, why should it work for schools? Hardly any academies have used their power to invent their own pay structures because it just isn't worth the effort - and when they have, they end up in trouble.

National pay structures are also a regional economic policy, boosting the spending power of communities in lagging regions, ensuring that money is spent in local shops and businesses and putting a brake on the downward pressure on private sector pay.

And this, I fear, is the real reason for proposals for local pay in the public sector. In recent decades, there has been a continual reduction in the proportion of national income that goes to pay and a balancing increase in unearned income. This is a basic reason for the shortage of demand that underlies our economic woes. But this inept Government wants to continue to force down wages for all and knows there is more scope for this in the lagging regions.

International research into the educational performance of developed countries repeatedly demonstrates that a well-paid teacher workforce is essential if high standards of national educational performance are to be achieved and maintained. Teacher pay in England and Wales has risen in the past 10 years sufficiently to end that sad cycle of downwardly drifting pay followed by a teacher shortage crisis followed by a dramatic restoration.

But, this autumn, applications for teacher training have plummeted by nearly 30 per cent. Even those subjects that do attract bursaries have seen a decline in applications, such as maths (27 per cent), and chemistry (41 per cent), which means that the problem cannot be simply financial. Perhaps too many graduates have seen at first hand how hard teachers have to work, how pressured is their daily grind.

Ministers should be very worried. Tens of thousands of teachers have to be trained each year to replace those who retire. A teacher recruitment shortage will, very quickly, turn into a teacher crisis. Nothing will depress educational achievement in England's schools more than that. If the great gains in teacher recruitment and quality are not to be thrown away, the Government must recognise that teaching is a national profession that requires national rates of pay and good conditions of service.

Teachers are proud to be public servants. They will not take kindly to, or perform well in, a culture of competition and division. The Government needs to understand this.

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of education union the ATL.

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