Is Scrooge in charge of pay rises?

22nd December 2000 at 00:00
Ministers have given employers the cash to fund just a 2.5 per cent increase in teachers' wages. Is this desirable? YES...'Nothing less than an early and mega investment in teachers' pay stands a chance of turning things round'

AFTER much controversy, the most radical reform of the way teachers are paid starts to be introduced next year. But that should not be allowed to hide the importance for teachers and schools of this year's pay settlement.

Performance-related pay could turn out to be either a stunning success or monumental flop. But it will take years, not months, to tell.

The reform may change how teachers plan their careers and link their pay to how schools are managed. But one thing is certain. There is not a realistic likelihood that the changes will quickly solve education's profound, long-standing problems, particularly the current recruitment crisis.

Far too few teachers have the sense of corporate self-confidence that is the hallmark of respected professions. Far too many teachers - the teachers upon whom schools will rely for the next 10 to 15 years - see retirement as their career pinnacle. There is no guarantee that the gaps they leave will be filled by well-qualified, able and highly-motivated entrants - or in many cases filled at all. Even Education Secretary David Blunkett has had to concede the potential gravity of the situation.

What is the answer? It was given by Professor Alan Smithers earlier this month in a television interview about the looming recruitment crisis, when he said that we have simply got to pay teachers more. He is right.

That is not to say that many teachers may not benefit in time from the new arrangements. But even if they do, that won't deal with three fundamental issues.

The salary levels on which the pay reforms are launched have been depressed for years and are now too low at every point. The guarantees of progressing to post-threshold salaries are too feeble. That is related to the third issue: there is no widely-held confidence that the whole structure will be adequately funded after start-up.

The Government needs to bite the bullet. Nothing less than an early and mega investment in tachers' pay stands a chance of turning things round. For too long teachers have been expected to be happy with pay rises significantly below those gained by other professions. If the Government continues to pay teachers less than the market rate it should not be surprised when young people choose to go to work as lawyers or in computers where the rewards are much higher.

There is the risk that a significant, across-the-board pay rise in 2001 could trigger inflation and turn out to be self-defeating in the longer term. But the alternative is an even bigger political risk - of going into the next election unable to claim that education, education, education was or ever will be converted into teachers, teachers, teachers. What is the point of having a war chest if you are unwilling to use it to win one of the country's most important battles?

Whatever the outcome of this year's pay battle it will be one of the last in which local authorities play a major role. It is fascinating to watch them currying political favour by agreeing with the Government's pay proposals. Have they failed to notice how increasingly irrelevant they are - and how even more irrelevant they are doomed to become? If the Conservatives are elected they won't exist at all. If the Blair administration is returned, they will be marginalised almost as much. The truth is that the real differences between Labour and Tory policies over LEAs are all but invisible.

Look at how the pound;2,000 threshold awards will go straight to schools (as will fast-track pay supplements when they come on stream). LEAs will be no more than a national network of Postman Pats. Look at the Government's plans to shift hiring, firing and pay setting from governors to heads. This is as close to the further education model as you can get with such a large number of often quite small institutions.

There could be no stronger hint that LEA-managed formula funding of schools' teacher pay bills has no future. They used to take centre-stage over teachers' pay but increasingly LEAs are having little chance even to mutter from the wings.

Peter Smith is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers

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