Pounds and sense

2nd October 1998 at 01:00
Bruce Douglas looks at the hard choices facing those championing the cause of performance-related pay for teachers

Here is one set of realities: The quest for improvement is on. Teachers cannot expect something for nothing. Poor performance cannot be subsidised. In future pay will be linked to performance at the individual class teacher level. A blanket refusal to look at PRP is no longer on.

Here is another set of realities: Teacher supply is in crisis - particularly in the secondary sector. Graduates are simply not coming through in the large numbers required let alone good graduates, with 2.1s or Firsts. Not enough bright 22-year-olds want to be underpaid and unloved 40-year-old teachers.

The forthcoming debates, and Government Green Paper, must take account of both sets of realities. Ignoring one set, to make an action plan seem credible to the public, just won't do.

For example, paying a few teachers a good deal more, and ignoring the rest probably won't end the recruitment crisis. Worse still, threatening (or appearing to threaten) that most teachers will not even have regular pay rises in line with inflation, unless they scramble to be in a minority of performance-bonus recipients, will precipitate a new crisis.

So, on the one hand, teachers (though as educated people they must surely be allowed rational arguments against) cannot dismiss PRP out of hand.

But on the other hand, any minister contemplating a new scheme had better be prepared to answer these sorts of questions from the profession:

* Whatever the mechanics of any performance- related scheme - is it to be paid for by a reduction in pay, or conditions, for the majority?

* Whatever the mechanics of selecting "good" performers - what percentage of the teaching force is it envisaged could earn how much more? Five per cent? Twenty per cent? Seventy-five per cent? Does the Government believe the profession has a deserving majority, or a majority of skivers and incompetents?

* Until now (though there are welcome signs of a change), schools in easier circumstances have been called "better," and schools in difficult circumstances have been labelled "worse". What guarantee do teachers have that, at individual level, performance would be rated more fairly?

* If good graduates don't volunteer, will the Government allow poor-quality people into training rather than providing funds for higher pay?

Can any minister give answers to these four questions which will a) satisfy the profession; b) satisfy the Chancellor; c) stave off the recruitment crisis without resorting to poor quality entrants?

Well, I wouldn't like to be the minister whose performance-related pay depended on it. But here is some advice - intended to help: 1 Be honest. If the gamble is to reward only one teacher in 50 - in the hope of attracting more good entrants - then say so. (But don't expect the floodgates to open for teacher-training departments if undergrads see that is only the minuscule proportion who can expect extra recognition).

2 Remember the difference between good and exceptional performance. Most doctors, lawyers, musicians and accountants are average (in fact half are below) - but the average can be commendable.

So: Be proud of all teachers whose students normally do as well as can rationally be expected (in value-added terms). Guarantee they will be rewarded annually at a level in line with inflation. Immediately much of the sting goes out of the PRP argument. You then have a PRP scheme - but not a "no pay unless you are exceptional" scheme. Remember, it's simply daft to threaten the ordinary, hardworking teacher at a time of recruitment crisis. If you recruit well, the "average performance" goes up; if not, it goes down. That is the long term, inexorable law.

3 Think of a golden hello for graduates with Firsts and 2.1s. How about paying off 20 per cent of any undergraduate loan for each year in teaching?

4 Remember, trying to solve the recruitment crisis by PRP is expensive. Two billion a year might be the minimum, but even then brutal honesty is required. If, say half of teachers can expect a really good, well above inflation, sustained increase in the coming decade, say so. Say, "We are going to uprate all teachers' pay in line with inflation - (unless incompetent) - but in 10 years' time we could be paying a quarter of them Pounds 5,000 a year on top of that and a quarter of them Pounds 10,000 a year on top. The open and honest reason is to attract more clever and effective people into teaching by showing the long-term prospect of merit pay, but we can't afford an above- inflation increase for all."

5 Make any criteria professionally credible. For example, above-inflation merit pay for the top 50 per cent based on value-added student performance comparing like with like - grammar school teacher with grammar school teacher, tough city school teacher with tough city school teacher. Those whose students consistently achieve in the top half, comparing like with like, over three to five years, gain "merit" status.

And finally, always remember: 6 Teachers are idealists. Mostly, they do it for the love of it. Remember not to blame them for society's problems and inequalities. And don't refuse to let them apply standards of civilised behaviour in their classrooms for fear of being called ideologically unsound "excluders". That deters possible entrants.

Above all, show some belief in the good, honest, daily "onstage" classroom performances that constitute teaching in most of our schools. (Actually, tip 6 might even work on its own.) But don't tell anyone I said so - I'd like teachers to be paid more.

Bruce Douglas is principal of Branston Community College and immediate past president of the Secondary Heads' Association. He writes here in a personal capacity

* Analysis, page 29

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