Where is the merit in this pay fiasco?

Lack of official guidance for assessing staff performance is turning into a farce, says David Sassoon.

While the Department for Education and Skills dithers about how to distribute resources to fund experienced teachers progressing a point on the upper pay spine, headteachers have the onerous task of determining who is worthy.

Teachers who crossed the threshold in September 2000 will qualify provided, according to the regulations, their performances have been "substantial and sustained". But what exactly does that mean?

The DFES has deliberately refused to provide guidance, stating that it is at the "discretion of the relevant body (usually the governing body)". The relevant body, of course, "is expected to seek and take into account the recommendations of the headteacher". The result is surely going to be a pig's breakfast. If anything goes wrong, you will know whom to blame.

The little crumb of advice blown off the DFES's dining table states that "relevant bodies and headteachers will be expected to use the outcome of statutory performance reviews to inform decisions on pay progression, but they can also draw on other relevant evidence".

The advice says governors and heads should "consider the totality of a teacher's work when reaching its decisions, bearing in mind the breadth of factors in the threshold standards". This means that headteachers are urged to take account of the outcomes of both annual performance management reviews and threshold standards.

But just as clarity dawns, the DFES states: "There is, in accordance with the school teachers' pay and conditions document 2001, no automatic link between meeting objectives or targets and the award of a... point" on the upper pay spine.

The reason for this, the guidance suggests, is that a teacher "who has made good progress on but not quite achieved a very challenging objective or target, may have performed better and made a more significant contribution than a teacher who has met in full a less stretching objective or target".

By what objective criteria are judgments like this to be made? The DFES goes further: teachers should be awarded an extra point on the upper pay spine, it says, if they show greater "breadth and depth than is indicated by the threshold standards themselves".

To help schools along the way, it provides examples of what the successful teacher should have done. These include undertaking a significant professional development activity that made a measurable, beneficial impact on pupil progress at school or tackling a school priority such as narrowing the achievement gap between boys and girls.

The National Union of Teachers has already begun sabre-rattling. It has advised its members that these examples have no legal force.

"Their use to restrict progress would lay headteachers who apply them open to accusations of discrimination, grievance and potential industrial action," it notes.

"The threshold standards already cover the full range of each post-threshold teacher's contribution to school life and their professional development targets. Movement to point two should not require substantial and sustained performance beyond the threshold standards."

What the union is trying to say is that the threshold standards are already substantial and sustained. The Government is advising heads to recommend upper pay spine increases only if teachers can give chapter and verse of what they did for the school over and above what was expected of them.

The battle lines appear to be drawn, with heads and governors caught in the crossfire. Meanwhile, Cambridge Education Associates, the body that carried out the threshold exercise, is also planning to issue advice. It sets out three elements covering the "substantial and sustained" requirement:

* maintenance and consolidation of the threshold standards;

* achievement of areas for development identified during the threshold assessment and subsequent performance review;

* achievement of performance review objectives.

Teachers who fail to accelerate on the upper pay spine can take issue with their headteachers and governors, whatever the criteria applied, on the grounds that they were not made aware of them at the outset.

If heads decide to defer awarding the points to all teachers by a year as a consequence, they can be carpeted by those who had performed exceptionally well and are expecting progression. If a head, following performance reviews, recommends to governors that all teachers receive the second point on the upper pay spine, irrespective of their accomplishments, it would be grossly unfair to those who have given their all.

Heads and governors in England are caught between a rock, a hard place and a clamp. I bet that many of them wish they could relocate to Wales where there is funding for all 14,500 senior teachers to get the pound;1,000 merit-related rises.

David Sassoon is an educational consultant, clerk to the governing bodies of several schools, and an external adviser for CEA

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