When the kids are rioting who could trust a super teacher?;Opinion

13th March 1998 at 00:00
Since I have been both a newspaper editor and a shop steward (called father of the chapel in our industry), I think I can claim some knowledge of how people's minds work when it comes to matters of pay and promotion.

And from my seven years on each side of the industrial argument, I offer the following insight: a person nearly always demands higher pay or status, not because of individual hardship, but because he or she thinks somebody else is earning more and doesn't deserve to. Alternatively, a high-earning person may be concerned that another, lower-earning person has recently received a pay rise and, again undeservedly, is about to catch up.

I call this an insight but it is hardly an original one. In the 1960s and 1970s, industry was frequently brought to a standstill by arguments over relativities and differentials: one group of workers would demand a rise because, they said, they deserved parity with another group, then the other group would demand the restoration of their differential.

But resentments about pay relativities are not confined to the working-classes, far from it. Journalists on The Times and Sunday Times bickered for years because average pay on the latter was higher than on the former; a sub-division of this argument (involving journalists on this newspaper) once brought some very distinguished scribblers to blows on the London pavements.

As long ago as 1966, the sociologist W G (now Lord) Runciman concluded, after more than 1,500 interviews for his book Relative Deprivation and Social Justice, that "manual workers are consistently less likely to feel relatively deprived than are non-manual workers who are earning the same (or at the top level probably a great deal more)". The obvious reason was that non-manual workers were comparing themselves with their better-paid peers rather than with the blue-collar masses.

People resent higher earnings among those similar to themselves, doing similar jobs. The greater the similarity, the greater the resentment. Women rightly objected to men earning more than they did for the same work; but I will venture the risky opinion that women's resentment of other women in their workplace getting higher pay has often turned out to be much greater. Sisterhood, like brotherhood, is apt to take second place to simple human jealousy.

All this should make the Government think carefully before it goes ahead with proposals for advanced skills or super teachers, on a special pay scale of pound;25-40,000.

The report on this question from the School Teachers Review Body contains some odd ideas. For example, it proposes that the limits on the working time of classroom teachers should not apply to the new super teachers, suggesting either that the review body doesn't know what most classroom teachers already do or that it is unaware that a complete rotation of the Earth takes only 24 hours and that some of these, human biology being what it is, are required for eating, sleeping and defecating.

But why is the teaching profession so resistant to the idea of rewarding outstanding performance in the classroom? It is surely a telling commentary on the issue that the "excellence points" already available to schools for this purpose are hardly ever used and that there is no groundswell of demand for them.

The reasons, I think, are not just to do with the difficulties of finding adequate criteria for judging excellence in classroom teaching. (Comparing schools is enough of a statistical nightmare; think how much more so would be the task of comparing individual teachers.) It is also to do with the instinct, shared by heads and classroom teachers, that differentiation would create peculiar resentments and dangerous divisions.

It comes back to that question of similarity that I mentioned earlier. Most teachers feel that the core of their job is the same: taking classes of children, day in and day out, winning their respect and attention, advancing their knowledge and learning. This, as they perceive it, is so difficult, so nerve-jangling, so energy-sapping a job in itself that anything in addition is marginal.

They think it perfectly fair that colleagues may earn a little extra for responsibilities that make the job, say, 5 or 10 per cent more onerous. But they would be hugely aggrieved if the teacher next door was being paid almost double for what amounted to the same work. They would be even more aggrieved if the noise level from next door seemed higher than it ought to be. They would be trebly, quadruply aggrieved if a few children were sent round from next door because the super-teacher had been unable to control them.

Heads have declined to take advantage of "excellence points" because they believe that the price of using them to motivate one or two teachers is to demotivate the rest.

A lesson that every manager in every field learns sooner or later is that, if you have limited resources, you should never buy off a grievance with a pay rise because, by doing so, you merely create half-a-dozen more grievances among people who think they should have had the same treatment. And schools can afford staff grievances and divisions less than other workplaces.

Teachers work in an essentially hostile environment, where mutual support and trust must be absolute. In that sense, teaching is more akin to coal-mining or soldiering or firefighting than to a white-collar profession: when the guns are blazing or the mine-shaft is collapsing or the kids are running riot, one man or woman has to be as good as another.

Further, schools have a duty to provide the best possible education for every child. If some teachers are deemed to have "advanced skills", the others are presumably ... well, less advanced. Can't you already hear the pushy, middle-class parents clamouring to have their child put in the super teacher's class?

However, anxious always to be helpful and constructive, I propose a deal. Politicians, New Labour as well as Tory, have a missionary-like fervour for introducing various forms of merit pay into every corner of the public sector. Except for one, and you know which. So let MPs be paid a basic salary of around pound;25,000. And let their constituents vote, annually, for advanced skills payments on top of that. And let those MPs, in turn, vote annually for advanced skills payments to ministers on top of a basic of, say, pound;40,000.

This would have two effects. First, it would increase public interest in politics. Second, teachers, following the professional axiom that example is better than exhortation, would have no alternative but to embrace the review body's proposals.

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