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What's the deal?

At last there appears to be a genuine commitment to invest in teachers; not only from David Blunkett but also from the Prime Minister and the all-powerful Treasury. "Investment in return for reform", is how Mr Blunkett puts it; upgrading tangible support and rewards in return for clearer demonstrations of teachers' skills and committment to raising standards.

"Something for something", of course, immediately raises the question "what for what?" And teachers who have coped with years of top-down reforms along with shrinking levels of funding may regard the suggestion that they must not expect something for nothing as downright impertinent.

But, so far, the teacher unions are realistically refusing to look a gift horse in the mouth. No doubt the Education Secretary's prompt reassurances about avoiding crude "payment by results" helped. And the threatened pay restraint.

It is doubtful at this stage whether Messrs Blunkett, Blair, Byers or Brown have much more idea how it is all going to operate than the teachers' pay review body which has repeatedly failed to produce workable performance-pay. But the two important and ground-clearing principles have been established: money will be found for raising standards and any performance assessment should take account of the circumstances of the job.

There is also tacit acceptance by the unions that there can be some performance-related element in teachers' remuneration. Some object to merit pay on the grounds that achievements may depend on the work of many staff. Successful teaching undoubtedly involves teamwork. But it also involves personal effort. Performance pay arrangements need to be able to distinguish between them while encouraging both. There is a danger that creating a handful of advanced skills teachers, for instance, will simply encourage the rest to "leave it to superteacher".

If heads are to assess performance, the forthcoming Green Paper needs to show how they will be prepared for this. OFSTED inspections consistently find monitoring of teaching unsatisfactory in four out of 10 schools. And research carried out for the Teacher Training Agency found primary heads unable to identify the staff most or least capable in a given subject. There will also need to be assurance of fairness and common standards. But none of this is planned before 2000 giving time to sort out the difficulties.

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