Dedicated Grand National watchers may be amused by another sport this year. They could pop along to the local school to watch headteachers limbering up for that other gruelling steeplechase, the DFEE-sponsored performance management and threshold assessment handicap.
Heads have four months to complete a process which will involve the re-engineering of schools' appraisal and data collection systems and the introduction of a new management culture.
"The timetable is much too tight," says Chris Nicholls, head of Moulsham High school in Chelmsford, Essex. He is confident that schools will keep to the schedule "because that's what schools do", but fears that good management practices may be short circuited to get the job done.
He would have preferred the threshold assessments to have been deferred until schools had performance management systems in place. "The more you hurry the process, the less time there is to sit down with your staff and get it right," he says. "If schools impose systems in a hurry, they may leave dissatisfaction in their wake."
The first decision heads will have to make concerns the professional development days the Government has allowed schools to schedule in the summer and autumn terms. Parents will have to be notified of school closures.
Harry Tomlinson, professor of education at Leeds Metropolitan University, is leading the Yorkshire and the Humber regional consortiums bid to train consultants and assess schools' threshold decisions. He thinks that schools will want to discuss threshold issues as early as possible. "The threshold is going to be an issue not only for those who are going to apply, but for everyone - it will affect a school's culture," he says.
Another issue is the dual requirement to advise colleagues on the process and assess applications. A Chinese wall will be required to ensure managers can counsel staff without feeling pressured by the knowledge that they will have to assess the same person later in the term.
"You may well have one deputy who is excluded from the decision-making process because they have an advisory role," says Professor Tomlinson. "Or the head of English could advise maths teachers and vice versa.
"Schools will need to agree a model. In primary schools, the head and deputy could make the decisions while the key stage co-ordinators take the advisory role."
Schools will also need to defend judgments to outside assessors and for that they will need data about teachers' performance.
Mr Nicholls argues that, for most schools, the appraisal system will be the obvious source of information. "It would be illogical to do anything else," he says. Harry Tomlinson agrees. "The performance management process is about setting up a rigorous appraisal system to complement threshold assessment," he says.
Appraisal has been an acknowledged weakness in schools. Three years ago, the Office for Standards in Education reported that ppraisal was having little effect on teaching practice and that it was "too isolated from school development and in-service training planning". Professor Tomlinson does not believe that the situation has improved. "Money intended to be pump priming was put into appraisal in the early Nineties," he says. "But when the money was withdrawn, people effectively stopped doing it and now very few schools have a really good appraisal system."
Mr Nicholls is well aware of the pitfalls of using appraisal. "As a process, it wasn't designed with assessment in mind," he says, warning that schools will have to listen to teachers' concerns.
He also thinks that schools will need to embed performancemanagement into an annual review. Threshold standards will need to be linked to a school's development plan, to setting objectives and to the needs and aspirations of the staff.
"It's not just the threshold," he adds. "Any performance management process would also need to be able to consider salary issues such as double incremental jumping andI the new leadership grade. Schools need to take ownership of this, in the interests of their staff."
At Prudhoe Community High school in Northumberland, the headteacher, Robin Casson, feels that PRP would have effects far beyond salaries and rewards. "We all feel that this is going to change the culture in schools. The relationship between heads and staff will be very different."
UNDER STARTER'S ORDERS IN THE PERFORMANCE PAY STAKES
1998: Autumn Government Green Paper proposes performance-related pay.
1999: July Schools minister Charles Clarke announces pound;22 million of funding to help introduce the new system.
August The Hay Group writes proposals for the DFEE on how the performance-management and threshold-assessment systems can be introduced.
November The DFEE advertises for regional consortiums to train consultants, run conferences and externally assess the threshold decisions made by schools.
2000: February Consultation paper on how teachers can cross the pay threshold.
March 27 to April 14 One-day conferences for heads on threshold assessment.
March 31 Regional consortiums awarded contracts.
Summer term First professional development day on performance-management.
May 15 Consultant training begins.
June 5 Deadline for teachers to submit applications for performance-related pay.
Consultants available to schools.
June 26 to July 14 One-day regional conferences on implementing performance-management systems in schools.
July 31 Deadline for heads in smaller schools to have sent threshold-assessment decisions to external assessors.
Autumn term Second professional day dealing with performance-management issues.
Assessors continue to vet heads' decisions.
Teachers receive extra pay on crossing the threshold - backdated to September 1.
Autumn half-term Deadline for heads in larger schools to have completed the threshold-assessment process.