Wrong answer, right question;Briefing;Live issues

29th October 1999 at 01:00
Is performance-related pay for teachers a dinosaur of an idea? asks Jane Phillips

IT WORRIES me enormously when politicians become convin-ced that they are right. Margaret Thatcher's "conviction politics" led us into some very deep waters - including the deepest reaches of the South Atlantic. Now I get the impression that Tony Blair's Messianic tendencies are beginning to show. Does he really believe that everyone who disagrees with him is wrong, reactionary, conservative?

Sorry, Tony, in your analysis of the teaching profession, you've identified the right problem but plumped for the wrong solution. You've gone for yesterday's answer, not tomorrow's.

Like much of society, the teaching profession does need to modernise. Its pay structure does need to change. Just like the rest of us, teachers must realise that, with the pace of change today, it's frighteningly easy to become a dinosaur. So what does Mr Blair dump on teachers and governors but performance-related pay - a dinosaur of an idea whose death throes are long overdue.

Performance-related pay - the phrase raises hackles in staffrooms across the country. But why make it an issue? It's been used in industry for years. Many governors, the very people who will have responsibility for operating it in schools, are themselves paid according to their performance.

It's an issue because the Government appears to be going ahead without asking or answering three fundamental questions:

What is the purpose of performance-related pay?

Will PRP work in schools?

Does PRP work at all?

Pay increases are underpinned by three criteria: to reward past performance, to motivate improvement and to recruit and retain quality workers.

Of these, the first is the least important to employers because the goods have already been delivered. Second, does PRP motivate? The evidence says not. One study of Inland Revenue employees found that increases in performance by high-flyers were cancelled out by lower performance by

everyone else. Other studies have replicated these findings.

Well then, will PRP recruit and retain high-quality staff? The jury's out at present. But when you consider that the starting salary for newly-qualified teachers is below the threshold for repaying their student loans, PRP would appear to be peripheral to the looming recruitment crisis.

There are deeper questions, too. Some people are by nature co-operative, some competitive. The prevailing culture in schools is and must be of co-operation. Most teachers see the education of pupils as a collaborative process.

Time and again it has been shown that collaboration is the key to school improvement. The Teaching Awards provide a good example. Each recipient downplayed his or her part and emphasised the team effort.

Performance-related pay, on the other hand, encourages competition. This might work for sales-

people. They can find new markets, increase the firm's income and benefit themselves. Teachers can't do this. Nor should they.

There are many differences between public and private sector pay and performance management. Different demands require different inputs and expect different outputs. It is probable that the introduction of performance-

related pay within schools will increase competition among staff and reduce the collaboration which is so vital to school improvement. Do we want that to happen?

Governors will have responsibility for the implementation of PRP. There will undoubtedly be problems in trying to make this ill-conceived policy work. There is the potential for conflict between governors and head, governors and staff; head and staff; between staff themselves.

In schools where relationships are already strained, this could be the last straw. Even where there are good working relationships, extreme sensitivity will be needed.

And the big question is - does PRP work at all? Evidence suggests not. As long ago as 1994 the Institute of Employment Studies said: "Across all organisations studied, the effect of PRP was at best neutral and mostly negative." Added to that, it tends to be inflationary.

So why are some people so wedded to PRP? Possibly because the alternatives require serious thought. Some creative thinking is needed in order to produce a reward system which motivates all teachers. PRP seems like an easy answer to a complex issue.

Governing bodies are divided in their views. Some governors have experience of PRP and can't understand what the fuss is all about. Others have experience which supports the contrary view. Research conducted by the National Association of Governors and Managers and the University of Hertfordshire indicates that a number of governors are appalled by the prospect of operating such a system.

These governors may well be asking themselves the following questions in the months ahead:

How can this work in a small primary school?

In any type of school, will it be seen to be fair?

Will it be acceptable to teachers?

How can relationships be preserved and enhanced in the face of a change which could be so divisive?

How can the co-operative nature of teaching be preserved within a competitive pay structure?

How can appraisal work as a development tool when explicitly linked to pay?

Will it be properly funded?

Where will the money come from?

Should governors be doing this?

And there are other, more general questions. Is performance-related pay actually long past its sell-by date? Shouldn't the Government be thinking much more creatively in its efforts to motivate and reward good teachers?

And here is my final question and it's to Tony Blair: How will you persuade Chancellor Gordon Brown of the financial prudence of a pay system which is both inflationary and has broadly negative effects?

Jane Phillips is an occupational psychologist, a governor of two schools and a member of the NAGM national executive. The views expressed here are her own.

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