Why the pay plan is flawed

14th April 2000 at 01:00
Conditions of service are as important for motivating and retaining staff as salaries, says headteacher Roy Blatchford.

THE past 15 years in education have one constant thread: hurriedpolicy introduction from government, rapidly followed by policy revision once practical common sense has prevailed.

The Government's pronouncements on teachers' pay and professional development are the latest manifestation. The document from the Department for Education and Employment is, of course, an artful design to appeal over the heads of union leaders direct to wallets. That's fine in politics but it's no way to run schools that have a past, present and future.

The document declares: "We are confident that the new pay structures, carefully explained and sensitively introduced, have much to offer teachers." This is usual spin for: "If you don't agree with it you haven't properly understood it."

Opposition from some quarters has been predictable and lacks a proper critique of what might be in all of this for the mid- and long-term benefit of schools. So much of the Blair agenda has been premised on two terms of office that it seems odd to introduce something as profound as performance-related pay in such a hurry.

All wisdom from private, public and non-profit organisations for whom I've worked suggests you secure professional development and performance-management systems before you link them to pay.

According to a recent survey of 100 of the fastest-expanding companies in Britain, 73 said that finding and keeping good staff was the major obstacle to achieving rapid growth. More than 40 said that having a comfortable, stimulating working environment was the best way to keep good staff - more important than the salary cheque.

It is here where the current proposals on teachers' pay are most flawed: not in their overall direction but in their emphasis and their process of introduction.

Over the past year I have been part of a team establishing a new school and learning centre for the 21st century. Having worked in and out of schools and colleges for nearly three decades, I can say confidently that we have 20 outstanding staff building excellence for the young people and families we serve. At a recent meeting we held with Carol Adams, chief executive of the General Teaching Council, it emerged powerfully that our overall conditions of service are as important to us as pay.

Weekly teaching load, class-size, resources, time for action research and student target-setting, flexible working practices allowing staff to work out of school with local business and education partners - all these matter profoundly to a professional group of people.

If you dig a little into the "professional development" consultation papers issued by the DFEE in Februry, there is a sniff of recognition that some of these things matter. But they appear as unfortunate add-ons. They threaten to be lost amid the to-fro futility of debate around pay due to consume most staffrooms.

Take two colleagues 1 know in different parts of the country running middle-to-large comprehensives: one has 60 of her 62 staff eligible to cross the threshold; another has 83 of his 115 staff. How is their time likely to be spent over the coming months and what is destined to be the focus of staff and governors' meetings alike through the summer term?

Collegiality and goodwill in staffrooms are being crudely sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. That expediency is tied to Tony Blair's vision of creating a "world-class education service", a phrase that spins through every speech and article that comes from ministers and advisers.

In establishing Walton high in Milton Keynes, I have glimpsed what world-class education is like. The cocktail is simple: 125 regular 12-year-olds, a whizzy group of motivated staff, outstanding working conditions (on current pay scales), lots of new resources, small class sizes and individual timetables that have meant 0.5 per cent staff absence since our opening in September 1999.

The budget will not get easier, we tell ourselves, and how long current levels of funding can be sustained I don't know. We'll try.

But let it be noted that just down the road the independent school has this level of resourcing every year. The delivery of world-class public services pivots around funding. Ministers examining the 1998 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development league table of spending per secondary student know that the UK is "bottom of the class": pound;2,680 per student in the UK plays a European average of pound;3,145 and pound;3,946 in Germany. Figures for primary schools tell largely the same tale.

Britain is a nation that continues to allow private wealth and public poverty to sit readily side by side. The ethic of transformed public service, apparently a core belief of the Third Way, is not in evidence in our public education system.

If it were, tax-rich central governments would devolve to every school in the land enough money to make a long-term commitment to the remuneration of teachers and the creation of first-class workplaces for students and staff alike. Local decisions - as in independent schools - might then replace crude national templates.

As it is, we have an ill-conceived policy blancmange, the detail of which - in regard to advanced skills teachers, leadership group and management spines, performance threshold and the plethora of jargon - will not stand the test of even a couple of annual cycles.

Roy Blatchford is principal of Walton high in Milton Keynes.

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