Performance-related pay: carrot or stick?

21st September 2018 at 00:00
As the squeeze on school budgets tightens, Dave Speck investigates whether teachers are jumping through ever-more hoops to receive their annual salary bump, or if the reforms are a great leveller for the profession

Once upon a time, in the days before teachers’ performance-related pay [PRP], there were two physics teachers who worked in adjacent classrooms. They were very different in their abilities in the job. One was only in his second year as a teacher, yet had found his feet and had a great relationship with his classes. He was enthusiastic and contributed a lot to the department, with other teachers using schemes of work he had written.

The physics teacher next door had been in post about five years longer but was struggling to control his classes. He rarely contributed to the department and was usually first out of school after the bell went at the end of the day.

There was another difference: the first teacher was getting paid around £6,000 less than his neighbour. And one day he told his head “it wasn’t fair”.

“He had a point,” says headteacher Richard Sheriff. “He told me that he did the same things, and a bit more, but that he got paid less. And I hadn’t realised how that felt for a teacher. He was saving up to buy a house at the time.

“If you’re standing next to someone on a production line making something and you’re doing exactly the same things but they’re doing less, yet getting £6,000 more than you, is that right?”

Sheriff is executive headteacher of Harrogate Grammar School. The North Yorkshire secondary is one of almost two-thirds of academies in England and Wales that, according to the Department for Education, have opted to adopt its performance-pay reforms.

The reforms, which have represented a huge change for some teachers, were mandatory in all maintained schools. They abolished automatic pay progression and gave schools control over implementing their own PRP systems.

By October half-term, teachers should (according to DfE guidelines) have found out whether last year’s performance was enough to merit a pay rise this year. So the next few weeks will be crucial for the morale of many in the profession.

And there are fears that a system already regarded as divisive now has the potential to get much tougher because of the financial pressure schools are under.

NEU teaching union joint general secretary Mary Bousted says that the union is more worried than ever that schools will be unable to fund PRP given financial their problems, and that PRP is being “misused to hold down salary bills”.

But Sheriff has fewer qualms about the performance-related approach.

“What it’s saying is if you do the right thing then you’ll get your pay packet and a little bit extra,” he says.

“This isn’t a big hammer that heads use to hit teachers with, it’s a prop that lifts teachers up and gives them incentives.

“If a teacher isn’t able to get the best outcomes from children, then that’s a capability issue. First we’d deal with this through performance-related pay, but we’d also seek an understanding of what’s happening and provide them with support.

“And we hope to have [achieved] the standard one day where no one [is treated differently] because everyone is great!”

Warning signs

In his other role as president of the Association of School and College Leaders, Sheriff says “he hasn’t picked up” concerns from school and college leaders that there are “major problems” with PRP. Yet, the DfE’s own research has revealed only 27 per cent of teachers agree that PRP helps to motivate underperforming teachers (from the report Evaluation of Teachers’ Pay Reform, October 2017, based on the responses of 1,020 teachers).

Meanwhile, teachers have complained of having to “jump through crazy hoops for a minor salary increase”, whether it’s meeting exam data targets or gaining certain grades in lesson observations.

And there are darker warnings, too: that heads are withholding PRP to get rid of teachers they don’t like, while rewarding their favourites.

One English teacher Tes has spoken with says of her last school: “PRP was definitely used to get rid of people they didn’t like.”

Science teacher Omar Akbar – a former NUT union rep – has had a wider, if anecdotal, view of how the system works on the ground and has serious concerns about its inconsistencies.

“From regularly speaking to teachers up and down the country, it seems that some academy heads pick favourites, and at the same time there are teachers who have to fight for their lives to move up the pay scale, usually because they’ve been caught out on a learning walk, or some other such obscurity, while others, the more obedient and less maverick, may get through much more easily,” he says.

“While this may not be the norm, it is definitely apparent and common enough to be mentioned.

“It seems that if a school does not use PRP, it will seldom be because of the funding crisis, although some heads will cling to this as a reason, but on occasion the reasons are more sinister.”

Other countervailing pressures can also work in the opposite direction when it comes to teacher pay.

Another headteacher, who does not wish to be named, tells a very different story about physics teachers: that they are in such short demand that schools may be inclined to use PRP to retain them regardless of their actual performance.

The head of a maintained secondary school in the South East says: “If someone’s had a tough year, maybe through ill health, and they’ve not been hitting their targets, you’re not going to turn around and say to them that they’re going to stay on the same pay grade when you know full well there are two schools up the road with vacancies for physics teachers.”

Research by the NEU, published earlier this year, revealed that a third of teachers thought their school’s PRP policy was “unfair”, while 40 per cent said linking pay progression to appraisal had “undermined the usefulness of the appraisal for professional-development purposes”. The research, involving 12,375 respondents, also found that almost half of teachers thought that PRP had “caused significantly extra work”. What’s more, 17 per cent of teachers who were eligible for PRP were last year told explicitly that they were not getting it because of lack of funding (compared with 15 per cent in 2016), according to the research.

The proportion may rise again this year, as some schools wonder how they will fund the first 1 per cent of the government’s proposed cost-of-living pay increase for teachers, as well as dealing with what one headteacher described as “a crisis of cash-starved budgets”.

Of the teachers denied PRP last year, 92 per cent had not been given any warning during the year that they were failing to meet the required standards, despite DfE guidance that there should be “no surprises”, says the NEU.

Andrew Morris, NEU assistant general secretary, who has responsibility for pay and conditions, says many teachers were reluctant to appeal, as the process was internal and they “didn’t have faith in it”.

But he adds: “We hear that a significant proportion of those appealing are given progression without an appeal hearing. That suggests that many headteachers back down if challenged, hence our wish to see more teachers do that.”

Meanwhile, the NEU says maternity leave has become a factor in denying PRP to some teachers, despite government guidance against this.

One Essex secondary teacher says that she was turned down for PRP after returning from maternity leave for the second time, despite being moved up the pay scale “with no questions asked” after her first pregnancy. “My school was really vocal about how they didn’t appreciate me having two maternity leaves close together,” she says.

“It felt awful to go from ‘the favourite’ to ‘the shunned one’.

“I was told I couldn’t move up because I couldn’t evidence I had done anything. I was told ‘you’ve barely been here’. I was in an academy, my union rep was useless, and I left instead of following it up.

“When I left, I had an exit interview with the head, and although he seemed to be sympathetic, [he] wasn’t going to do anything. Ultimately, I was, like many women, too exhausted from having just had a child to argue it, and felt that I didn’t want to work at a school that didn’t value my work. I got the first job I applied for, and it took me a week. I put my notice in and left the next term.”

Nuanced approach

Ruth Golding, head of school at Tor Bridge High, an academy in Plymouth, says her school “recognised the nuances” within PRP partly because there were many factors outside the classroom that could have “an enormous impact” on pupil performance, including adverse childhood experiences and parental attitudes to education.

“Is it your teaching or someone else’s that enabled the progress?” she says. “When there are different teachers every year, how can you identify where the progress has come from? It could be a teacher earlier down the school who has enabled some knowledge to be consolidated where not much progress was evident, but did this accelerate progress in the exam year?

“Some recent research shows that even a satisfactory teacher can get better results if they retain their class for two or more years…but this isn’t always possible.

“Because all of this is so variable, then it seems ridiculous to reward performance based on this. So our substantive performance measures predominantly link to the following: how well has the individual engaged with their own professional learning and development?

“Yes, everyone has a data-related target, but no we don’t hang people out to dry on it if the class doesn’t perform, as long as you are reflective and are you improving your skills in relation to them. If the member of staff has evidence of this then we assess their progress as having the performance we want.”

Other schools are going even further in that direction. Cockermouth School, a maintained co-ed secondary in Cumbria has dropped formal, graded lesson observations. Nor does it look at exam data when considering a teacher’s PRP award.

Instead, PRP progression at the secondary is based on a teacher’s project through which they seek to improve their teaching skills. That could be anything from developing strategies for a purposeful working environment, to an exploration of how cognitive science approaches could be applied to the teaching of key stage 4 English, to making marking manageable while increasing its impact.

English teacher Amy Forrester says the Cockermouth system has “helped with killing the PRP monster” and means that teachers don’t have to “jump through crazy hoops for a minor salary increase” (see box, below). But the situation is much less rosy elsewhere. Akbar says that he’s heard of one school where, apparently due to budget cuts, the pay scale was divided into “a” and “b” streams.

“Let’s say you’ve completed M1 for your NQT [newly qualified teacher] year, then you would move on to M1 b the following year,” he says. “This would be at a value halfway between M1 and M2. When on M1b, you would then go through the usual performance-management procedure to get onto M2a, then M2b, then M3, etc. [It’s] a process both punitive and dispiriting.”

He adds: “Some teachers may appeal an ‘unfair’ decision, but some won’t – either because they believe that it won’t make a difference or because they fear the repercussions of challenging their headteachers. Other teachers will simply take the hint and leave – either the school or the profession. I don’t believe there is consistency in the response from teachers. Ultimately though, for all teachers, it comes with a great deal of demoralisation. I have known teachers who left the profession for this reason alone.”

Dave Speck is a Tes reporter. He tweets @specktator100

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