Winners and losers

6th April 2001 at 01:00
So how was the threshold process for you? Despite the obstacles, most applicants staggered over the finishing line. But what about those who were left behind, asks Michael Duffy

The first long year of threshold assessment is nearly over. And it seems that the overwhelming majority of teachers who applied for the extra pound;2,000 have crossed the line - although for those who haven't, the experience has been professionally and personally devastating (see page 27).

Cambridge Education Associates, which is managing the system, won't confirm how many teachers will get the extra cash. The process isn't finished yet, it says; all secondary schools should now have been visited by external assessors, but the deadline for small primary schools and special schools has been extended to the end of May. Besides, CEA argues, the Department for Education "owns" the figures, and there will undoubtedly be an "upbeat ministerial announcement" soon.

Regardless of deadlines, it looks as though David Blunkett's prediction that 90 per cent of applicants would cross the threshold will be comfortably exceeded. Overwhelmingly, headteachers say they've endorsed all, or almost all, applications from eligible staff. To do otherwise, one primary school head says, would indicate that her staff are falling short as main grade teachers, "and that would be a rank injustice". And external assessors are confirming their judgments. In the few cases where a headteacher's recommendation has been changed, it's as likely to be in the teacher's favour as not. None of the heads anticipate a revisit or review.

One possible reason for the high success rate is that teachers who have doubts about their ability to meet the requirements have not applied. The proportion of qualified non-applicants, however, is small - under 5 per cent in our sample - and it includes, according to the heads, a number of "effective" teachers who object to the threshold proposals on principle. So it looks like good news all round.

Good news for experienced teachers, who get a pound;2,000 backdated pay rise and access to the upper scale; good news for the profession, which at least now to some degree sees its "performance" (as the threshold training video puts it) "recognised and rewarded". Good news, certainly for Mr Blunkett, whose staff will already be drafting his triumphant pre-election announcement. Good news, even, for CEA, on course to deliver a toast to teachers from what looked, initially, like a poisoned chalice.

"It really is a success story," a CEA spokesperson insists. "Where it has been well managed by heads, threshold assessment has timulated professional dialogue and confirmed beyond doubt the value of monitoring and evaluation. It's highlighted innovation, too, and the use of different measures of performance."

Many heads agree there's been some benefit. Tony Ford, acting head at Glaisdale secondary school in Nottingham, says: "We're all more conscious of the issues now, particularly pupil progress. I'm more conscious of whole-school issues. We're in a better position to share good practice."

The unions say the same. "By and large it's gone well," says Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. But he adds (a universal reservation) that "it's far too bureaucratic".

Gwen Evans, deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, agrees. "Given its attendant safeguards, and given the deficit model of teacher competence from which it started, the system was always going to be bureaucratic.

"It has created a climate of fear, and that in turn has led to a culture of over-planning, over-teaching and over-recording. What it has really shown is that teaching is fast becoming a health hazard. It has made us realise why we're so knackered."

That is not a message Mr Blunkett is likely to highlight, but heads and assessors endorse it - off the record. They have other reservations, too. Roger Bateman, a primary head in Calderdale, West Yorkshire, has no complaints about how the process has been handled, but says it is "a heavy price to pay for the notional recognition that teachers are doing a good job".

His secondary neighbour, Anna White, head of the Ridings school, goes further. "I am aggrieved that my professional judgment is not good enough," she says. "Are we professionals or not? I should have been most concerned if any of my judgments had been overturned."

Robin Reynolds, head of Woodgate primary in Birmingham, is even blunter. "It's using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. They're trying to retain experienced staff, but they're terrified of seeming soft on teachers."

And that, perhaps, is the crucial issue. Given that some 95 per cent of the nation's experienced teachers have demonstrated that they meet the expectations "appropriate for the majority" of such teachers, was it sensible to set up a system that highlights so destructively the failure of the minority who have not?

Threshold assessment has so far cost the Government pound;40 million. Given the current recruitment and retention crisis, it is not just those who failed to cross the threshold who will want to be assured that the result is worth it.


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