Opportunities lost

6th February 1998 at 00:00
The decision to defer the full 3.8 per cent salary rise for teachers until next December is short-sighted, contrary to Labour's promise to make education its number one priority, and as regrettable as it is sadly predictable.

In reaching such conclusions it is hard not to be influenced, not by the self-interested views of teachers and their representatives, but by seven people chosen by the Government for their sagacity, understanding of employment matters and independence; the members of the school teachers' pay review body.

Though there have been changes in the membership of that body over the past seven years, it has built up considerable knowledge and expertise in the arcane world of teacher recruitment while learning a great deal about what does - and does not - motivate the profession.

With a close eye this year on the Labour Government's commitment to raise standards, and after careful consideration of the views of all concerned and the affordability of its award, the review body was unequivocal about not paying the increase in stages: "Our recommendations represent our considered judgment of all the factors involved and, with the prospect of improved funding, we hope that they will in future be implemented in full from the due date."

The Government, it seems, decided otherwise, though by some accounts against the advice of Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett. In so doing it demonstrated that its real imperative is not education, education, education, but economy, economy, economy.

Otherwise Labour would have seized this opportunity to make an exception of teachers to underline the national importance of recruiting and retaining sufficient numbers of able graduates to the profession; a profession, it could have signalled, currently enjoying the support and confidence of ministers in the demanding task of meeting the Government's challenging targets for higher standards.

At a stroke, the Government would have shown that not only did it, rightly, have the highest expectations of teachers, but that it was also prepared to make a unique gesture of encouragement and support for their already increased workload, the substantial improvement they have already achieved and its confidence that there was more yet to come.

Instead, it confirmed once again that when it comes to motivating the profession it prefers stick to carrot; to provide already hard-worked and demoralised teachers with yet another needless cause for grievance and bitterness out of all proportion to the sums involved.

Labour has, of course, other important objectives in education to guard, such as reduction of class sizes and improvement of staff development and teaching materials. A quarter of the extra Pounds 835 million it found for education this year will be absorbed by increased pupil numbers. But it would have cost around Pounds 140m more on a pay bill of almost Pounds 12 billion to pay the teachers' increase in full from April.

With the shoots of real improvement in schools beginning to show through - and with signs that the need for higher expectations is accepted more and more in schools - at stake was more than a technical question of public expenditure versus likely recruitment and retention rates. The Government had a clear - and positively cheap - opportunity to boost teachers' morale, to restore their sense of being valued professionals and to ensure goodwill for the greater demands it has yet to make on them. It missed that chance, and has once again alienated those it depends on to achieve its goals.

Instead it offers professionals lottery funds - charity money - for undertaking yet more work. On the face of it, it may not seem unreasonable to pay teachers more for giving up weekends and holidays. But many teachers already do, of course, for no reward.

Selective payments for after-school work are bound to impact on other extra-curricular activities and could further increase the disincentives to take on deputy headships. For all the review body's exhortations about "sensible decisions by local management" and "fairness and consistency" in payments for out-of-hours pupil support, this is a move away from the idea of a professional rate for a professional job.

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