How do headteachers feel about performance related pay for teachers? And can schools afford it? Louise Tickle explores some of the big questions around pay reform
When Michael Gove announced in December that he was scrapping national pay scales for teachers in favour of performance related pay, there was a collective howl of outrage from many staff rooms – and heads’ offices – across the country.
Under the system announced on Tuesday, teachers will no longer progress automatically up nationally set pay ‘bands’. Instead, headteachers will have the option to link an individual’s salary to their annual appraisal. Pay bands will be kept as a reference point, but instead of teachers steadily moving up points within a band, heads will have complete discretion over where in the band to place any member of staff.
Not everyone disagrees with the principle, but it is hard to find a senior leader who thinks the measure will work in practice.
“We operate performance related pay anyway,” says Lawrence Montagu, headteacher at the ‘outstanding’ St Peter’s High School and Sixth Form College in Gloucester. “When people progress from the main pay scale to the upper pay scale, they’re given targets. And if they don’t hit them, they don’t progress any further.”
What concerns him, Montagu says, is the impression that teachers are just allowed to get on with what they do and nobody holds them accountable.
“These targets are meaningful,” he points out. “We have the possibility of not progressing people to the next point on the pay scale.”
“The only level at which performance should be related to payment at all in that direct way should be capability,” says Tom Sherrington, headteacher at another ‘outstanding’ school, King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford.
“If you think a teacher is not performing at a standard that is appropriate, then fundamentally they shouldn’t be a teacher. We already have that [capability] procedure, and heads should follow it. Beyond that, the idea of performance being related to your pay is absolutely toxic and a disaster.”
At Forest Gate Community School in Newham, headteacher Simon Elliott says there is good research to show that in experimental trials or with well-controlled groups in educational settings in the USA, the impact of performance related pay has been close to zero. “I am not sure that most teachers are motivated primarily by money, nor do I know if they will do a better job if they are offered more,” he says. “The evidence would suggest not.”
His view is backed by professor Diane Ravitch, a historian of American education and author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. Politicians, she says, “believe they will get better results by offering bonuses to teachers. What they get instead is narrowing of the curriculum to what is tested, score inflation, drilling to the test, and cheating. What they don’t get is better education.”
Whether you support the principle or not, however, there are practical difficulties in how to implement the measure with no extra money currently available for salary uplifts.
Ros McMullen, principal at the David Young Academy in Leeds has no problem with the concept of performance related pay and operates it to some degree already. Teachers, she says, need recognition and she believes that pay offers one way of achieving that as well as being a good retention device for valued staff who might otherwise head off to better paid pastures.
However, she says, “the presumption of this announcement is that some teachers are underperforming, because how else do you balance your books? It feels a conundrum for those of us who have dealt effectively with under-performance. Am I supposed to introduce norm-referencing for teachers?”
Montagu spells out in cold hard cash terms why he doesn’t believe he will gain any more flexibility from the measure.
“[George] Osborne announced a 1% increase in public sector pay. So we go to the pay review board and say ‘we’ve been given 1%, so can you fund it?’ They say ‘no, you have to find it.’ But we’re already funding a 3% cut in 6th form funding, a 1.5% cut on main school funding and now a 1% overall cut. So where are we going to find the money to do more PRP?”
Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds points out that there are also dangers of expensive disagreements arising from one teacher being paid more than another: this could mean schools incur significant legal costs as well as having to pay compensation awards.
“The risk of it is that heads are going to spend more time on decisions [about who gets paid more] and on challenges to [those] decisions,” he says.
Knowing how good your teachers are also comes down to more nuanced judgements than a simple performance table, says Sherrington. “Data and lesson observations are only snapshots. The key factor is that all teachers have a reputational standing in a school that is based on everything you do, and that’s far too subtle to measure with a metric.”
In many schools, notes Elliott, performance management is carried out by close colleagues. “This can lead to a lot of gaming of the system, and unvalidated evidence being used. Performance related pay will mean major changes in how schools manage staff, and may undermine the collegiality of schools.”
As well as being practically difficult to implement, performance related pay, Sherrington says, will be counterproductive. “It will demotivate staff, because it’s against the idea of collective action. Schools are effectively giant teams, so even if I think I’m a superb teacher, I can’t get the results my children get without the contribution of everyone in the school.”
Relying on performance related pay to incentivise ever better results also risks causing a breakdown in staff and senior management relationships, he believes.
“You’ll get teachers saying ‘prove to me that I’ve not performed’ and then you’ll have to come up with data to prove it,” he says. “That’s lots of my time taken.”
Add to this concerns about equal opportunities legislation: Montagu outlines a scenario where “you move someone up £3,000 for doing a good job, and another up £2,000, who thinks they’re doing the same good job… you could face all sorts of industrial relations problems.”
Elliott says that tackling underperformance is a better route to enhancing children’s experience of education. “The ability of heads to deal with underperforming staff needs to be strengthened and enshrined, and the unions need to get on board. I don’t think performance related pay is the way to do this.”
“The government appears to be going after the wrong target,” says Elliott. “Getting rid of the least effective teachers and trying to raise the quality of those entering the profession will have some effects but they are likely to be very small when compared to the large “effect size” of training teachers in techniques like formative assessment and peer to peer feedback. There is a mass of research from Dylan Wiliam and John Hattie to support this, but it doesn’t appear to be fashionable in government circles. Despite the mass of academic evidence behind this, it doesn’t make good copy or play well in the shires.”
Barton says he “will look carefully at [performance related pay] with governors and make sure that we have very transparent processes”. He too, however, will be working with a system that he has no faith in.
“What we see in the best schools is that people work collaboratively with each other,” he says. “It’s not about vying with the teacher in the next classroom. It runs counter to a collaborative culture.”
Sherrington says he will not operate the system of performance related pay as announced by the secretary of state, “and my school will benefit, and my results will show it”.
He is hoping that there will remain a notional national pay scale to which heads may choose to refer, and that teaching unions will work together to create a quality mark that is awarded to schools who operate what he calls “fair pay” for staff. “I think that will be in our interests to support,” he says.