DAVID Blunkett says he is "flexible" over the timing of a controversial new appraisal scheme for teachers - but the principle is not up for debate.
As the National Union of Teachers prepares to ballot members over a boycott of the system which the Government plans to introduce in September, the Education Secretary hinted to MPs on the education select committee there was leeway for a delay in its start.
The system is a key building block for a new pay structure, outlined in the teaching Green Paper, which would partly link salaries to pupils' results from September 2000. The NUT is angry it is being introduced before consultation on the paper is completed.
A delay alone is unlikely to placate the union. Mr Blunkett told MPs: "We are committed to the principles laid out (in the Green Paper). We are open to discussion on how best to implement them." The NUT said the consultation was a sham.
Mr Blunkett, answering MPs' concerns that heads were not ready for a new appraisal system, said: "I'm prepared to be flexible. What I can't do is put back the assessment system for crossing the threshold (to the higher, performance-linked pay scale).
"We have a bit of leeway and we recognise that in implementing the system we'll have to put in place the necessary structures to make it work properly."
He is expected to say more when he addresses the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' annual conference next week.
Mr Blunkett remains determined to sell the Green Paper as good for teachers. He talked of crossing the pay threshold as a "promotion".
But he gave signs it is proving an uphill struggle. An ATL survey found many teachers admitted they did not fully understand the paper. And he said: "There are those that simply will not engage with the process at all and it's very difficult to engage back with them."
Doug McAvoy, NUT general secretary, welcomed any delay in the new appraisal system but said: "Mr Blunkett knows we oppose the use of pupils' results to determine salaries. To say the Government is committed to the principles of the Green Paper undermines its consultative nature."
Mr Blunkett also confirmed that teachers assessed to cross the threshold to the higher pay scale would see their pay backdated to the start of the school year. It is expected to take several months for all teachers to be assessed.