Time to stop posturing;Platform;Opinion

17th September 1999 at 01:00
Teachers' representatives must now engage in a difficult debate over how to ensure the profession is better and more fairly paid, says Peter Smith

OVER THE past 25 years every attempt to reform how teachers are paid has failed.

In the mid-Seventies, committees of inquiry (Houghton and then Clegg) awarded teachers substantial salary increases. Teachers thought that they had been given pay rises of permanent worth which would properly recognise the social value of their work and their professional standing. They were wrong. The cash was devalued as soon as it was paid. Large, across-the-board percentage pay rises in the public sector were worthless if they triggered wage-driven inflation across the whole economy.

Later attempts failed as badly. Even though Kenneth Baker's pay and conditions imposition added just over 16 per cent to the national teacher pay bill, his attempt to replace responsibility allowances with incentive awards was a flop. Far from motivating teachers, Baker alienated them even more.

As a result of the assimilation costs much of the "new" money Baker thought he was injecting into the system lubricated the system he wished to replace. Many regarded Baker's "incentive payments" as patronising. They were opposed to any attempt to connect what they were paid to how they performed.

The "new" money was linked to a conditions rulebook which spelt out how many days - 195 - and how many hours - 1,265 - teachers should work each year. Many teachers felt that to be not just an offensive slur on their professionalism, but a con-trick. The 1,265 hours was no contractual peri-

meter, rather the gateway to limitless workload. How ironic that many of the same teachers now feel the Baker conditions framework to be an essential protection rather than a wholly unacceptable imposition. It is therefore not remotely surprising that School Teachers' Review Body attempts to link teachers' pay to performance have floundered.

Theoretically, performance-related pay already exists for heads and deputies - but in practice senior managers' pay has often been raised because governors generally feel that hard-working heads and deputies are underpaid. If they cannot extend the approach to the rest of the teaching staff, it's no surprise if the infantry feel cheated.

Blair and Blunkett must appreciate the powerful legacy of distrust and disillusion created by the last administration. The teaching profession is not currently in the mood for exciting experiment. Guinea pigs never vote for extending the clinical trials.

What then are the key issues? Is the Government right to question the basis on which teachers are currently paid? The answer is yes. Is the Government right to ask the most difficult question of all: is it possible to relate what teachers are paid to their contribution to their school's progress and development?

Let's get one myth out of the way immediately. There are powerful voices who claim that the Government, in asking the question at all, is proposing payment by results - a return to the discredited 19th century link between pupil exam performance and teacher pay. History will see that claim as a scaremongering bid to exploit teacher disillusion rather than a serious attempt to engage in a very difficult but necessary debate.

The dominating influence on what teachers are paid is almost invariably the size of the school at which they teach - and the size of school and its budget are, of course, powerfully influenced by the age of the children who attend it. A female teacher in a small primary school can be an outstanding practitioner, but she will never be able to earn as much as her professional colleague (male or female) working in a medium to large secondary school. The fundamental question then becomes: is there any way in which it is possible to decouple what teachers are paid from the size of the school in which they teach?

The Government's proposals are radical. They suggest that all teachers - irrespective of sector - should be entitled to apply to pass through a threshold and if they succeed benefit from a government-funded pay rise. Sensibly they have accepted that paying teachers who pass through the threshold cannot be funded from current school budget allocations. Sensibly they have accepted that there is no need to require threshold teachers to enter into new contractual requirements.

The Government also proposes that an element of a teacher's pay should connect with his or her contribution to the work of the school -- and not just its academic, league table success. Much will turn on the school's intake, its resources, and the quality of its management. The Government is therefore right to say that decisions cannot be left to school level and that there must be a strong element of external assessment.

One thing is clear. Those who represent teachers face an unavoidable challenge. They can either posture or they can engage in a real and difficult debate about how we rethink how we reward the teaching profession. The objective of the debate is beyond doubt. How do we ensure that the great majority of teachers are paid more and rewarded more fairly not just in the eyes of teachers but the wider community? The issue is as simple and as complicated as that.

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

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