Perverse incentives

24th May 2013 at 01:00

Performance-related pay for teachers: it's a contentious idea but it seems to be on the way to England and many other parts of the world. I think it's a dreadful notion. Why on earth would we want to return to the Victorian era of payment by results?

And what, exactly, do we mean by "performance"? We are already in very dangerous waters, where the purpose of education seems to be passing tests, achieving targets and gathering data. Should we pay teachers more because they are skilled at manoeuvring children through exams? That seems likely to be the sole criterion if performance pay goes ahead.

In the English primary school sector, teachers are under enormous pressure to make sure that students in their final year achieve a set national standard. Struggling children are given cramming sessions to ensure that as many as possible hit the required target. Never mind that the secondary schools children go on to get annoyed because students quickly revert to their natural abilities - percentages are vital when inspectors judge schools principally on the data that they provide.

So what do we do? Reward Ms Smith with additional money because she has achieved 100 per cent test success with her students, even though some have reached that level only via intensive coaching? And what happens next year, when Ms Smith can't repeat that success because of the ability of the class she inherits? Do we take her money away again?

Despite what governments think, children are not boxes of cornflakes, all the same and subject to sales curves. Every child is different, with individual needs. And what about Ms Jones, the special needs teacher in a deprived, inner-city school? She works with extremely disadvantaged children from homes that can be chaotic and violent. Often, simply getting these children to school is a major achievement.

The fact that our education secretary and his acolytes prescribe the progress that these children should make in a year shows their complete misunderstanding of reality, simply because they have never encountered this type of child on a personal level, or experienced the depth of dedication it takes to help them make something of their lives. How do we judge Ms Jones' success? I can't see much governmental enthusiasm for paying her more simply because Charlie enjoys going to school.

And what about the rogue principals who reward their personal favourites, or bully or threaten people into submission? And won't some teachers be tempted to manipulate the figures through fear of losing out? It has already happened in the US.

Yes, in the current system good teachers resent the fact that poor teachers are paid the same salary as them, and no, that isn't fair. But the right way to do things is to make job expectations extremely clear, and to have a clearly defined process when a teacher isn't performing. The best schools do that anyway - and it works. Performance pay will set teacher against teacher, and the path is riddled with pitfalls. It will be a sad day for the profession if it plunges into them.

Mike Kent is a retired headteacher of a school for children aged 4-11 in England. Email:

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