Performance-Related Pay Will Be A Débacle

Michael Gove’s proposal that teachers be rewarded financially for achieving targets undermines the very ethos of the profession

Education Features
Don't do it, Mr Gove: The Secretary of State shouldn't adopt PRP

Show me a teacher who does his job for the money, and I’ll show you a teacher who is mediocre. Any good teacher is motivated on the whole by the children they teach. They love them and the kids know it. That love is what bonds pupil and teacher, especially in the inner city. The more deprived the children, the more love matters. Teacher is motivated by pupils, and pupils by teacher: results go up, and everyone is successful. But make money the motivating factor, and everything goes kaput. 

Performance-related pay (PRP) seems like a good idea on the surface: reward teachers for a job well done. If the kids get excellent exam results, it means the teacher did a good job. Why not give her an extra £500 in her pay packet to say well done? Because, for the sake of £500, you’ll turn your school into a place where that teacher won’t want to work. By rewarding your best staff with financial bonuses you create a culture that will make them leave the school, and you achieve exactly the opposite of what you wanted. 

Private schools would use PRP if it worked. I have never heard of any that do. If you ask some of these old headmasters why, they won’t tell you it is because teachers are above the grubbiness of money. They’ll say that PRP would destroy the ethos of their school. 

Those who believe in performance-related pay for our schools are reacting against ludicrous claims coming from the extreme Left and the teaching unions, in support of the current incremental pay system. Some shout about how PRP will be used to discriminate against good staff who are hated by bad heads. Others say that PRP is about cutting all teachers’ salaries. Others still believe deep down that any decent socialist education system must understand, at its heart, that all teachers are the same, and therefore must receive the same pay. 

But proponents of PRP are also reacting against a very real problem in schools: poor teachers who move up the pay scale at the same rate as teachers who work, day and night, to transform kids’ lives. It just doesn’t seem fair. It is bloody annoying for those excellent teachers who feel their work goes unrecognised. It is absolutely the case that even the best heads struggle to reward teachers as accurately and as well as they would like with the standard incremental pay scale. Presumably that’s why Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, is backing PRP. What he may not realise is that while extra money in a teacher’s pocket is always nice, and it may seem counterintuitive to question PRP, the implementation of a system of PRP is too pernicious and divisive to justify it.

First, let’s dismiss the myths. Good teachers work all hours. They are not tutoring on the side to make more money. They simply don’t have the time. Nor are they toying with the idea of leaving the state sector to go to the private sector, where they can earn more. State school teachers who leave do so because they are tired of the chaos, and crave some peace in their lives. Teachers earn relatively good money. Long gone are the days when teachers were genuinely struggling to live on their salaries. Leading Practitioner pay rewards excellent teachers who wish to stay in the classroom with salaries up to £57,520, or £64,677 if in inner London. Teachers leave not because of the pay but because their working conditions prevent them from changing the world, as they had imagined they were going to do.

Performance pay does not make it easier to dismiss poor teachers. A temporary work contract will. If heads made use of the sensible probationary period of two years when a teacher first starts at the school, and actually fired underperforming teachers, then we wouldn’t have the problem of poor teachers moving up the pay scale at the same rate as good teachers. They wouldn’t be moving up the pay scale at all: they’d be out of a job. 

Performance pay is really meant to do two things: reward good teachers, and encourage teachers who are stagnating to work harder and better. 

Teachers who are not performing do so for one of two reasons, or sometimes both. Either they are lazy and cannot be bothered, or they are genuinely struggling under the demands of the job. Do we really think that by putting an extra £500 carrot in front of the lazy teachers that they are suddenly going to become outstanding? If they aren’t already motivated by the children they teach, money isn’t going to help. If they’re so bad, then they should be fired. Simple. 

What of the struggling teacher? She loves her kids, but she is new at the job and is taking time to get to grips with being a good teacher. She’s under a lot of stress, and sometimes cries in bed at night when she finally gets there after finishing her lesson plans at 2am. Does it make sense to demoralise this teacher by dangling £500 in front of her and then take it away? Let’s be clear: there is nothing she could do differently (in a practical sense) that might have earned that £500. Now she’ll resent the fact that you aren’t giving it to her. This teacher who, given another year in the job, might have blossomed and stayed, giving much needed consistency and order to your school, leaves in disappointment and anger, all for the sake of £500.

Schools are not like businesses. Consistency means everything to a school. The bond between pupil and teacher is crucial, and the greater the number of years teachers have been at a school, the better the learning experience for pupils. 

Does PRP reward good teachers? Yes. Or at least, it rewards those teachers who appear to be good. Performance-related pay is all well and good as long as you can measure performance. Any measure needs to be valid, reliable and considered fair and accurate by the teachers themselves, or you’ll create an unhappy atmosphere in the school that will drive teachers away. Let’s look at the issues.

1. Teachers work as a team. A head of department might support less experienced teachers by taking the more challenging children into her class. Head and teacher share resources. They achieve common whole-school goals through co-operating. Establish a culture of every man for himself, where that head of department may very well lose out on her £500 if she takes in challenging kids, and she’ll stop helping the weaker staff. Her results won’t be as good if she has more challenging kids. There isn’t any way of measuring the exact effect. If only there were. But teaching is not a science; it’s an art-you don’t always get the same output from the same input. Children are not predictable, and classes even less so. Remove one or two miscreants from a troublesome class and it can be transformed into a team of high-achievers. 

2. It’s very difficult to judge the impact of one teacher. Even if results were entirely down to everything the teacher did (and clearly they are not), what happens when the teacher is given a new GCSE group from year 10 that has been badly taught for the previous three years? Again, it is impossible to judge. And what of those teachers who don’t have any exam groups? Set them targets saying pupils must make two sub-levels of progress by the end of the year and the teacher will simply award those children the results you’ve demanded. Results are not an accurate way of measuring teacher performance because they can literally just make them up.

3. Pupils are responsible for their results, not teachers. The culture in state schools is already upside down. Visit a good private school, and the children will tell you that they get good grades because they work hard. If they got a bad mark, it’s because they were slacking. Kids in the state sector think that when they get a bad mark it is because the teacher wasn’t good enough. Paying teachers according to results will only exacerbate an already pernicious and debilitating culture in our schools. 

4. Extra-curricular activities should be valued. A target culture undermines this. Teachers don’t just teach their children to pass exams. Or at least they shouldn’t. Reward them for reaching certain results and that’s exactly what they’ll do. Teaching to the test is already a massive problem in state schools. This goes to the heart of what is wrong with PRP. A narrow focus on targets is not what you want in a good school. Why would you want to encourage teachers to think that only a small part of their job (namely three targets) is important?

5. Intrinsic motivation is a good thing. Pay a teacher to take on that extra basketball class and suddenly the intrinsic motivation is gone, and not just from that individual, but from all of your staff. One of the beautiful things about good teachers is the way they give effortlessly for the sake of their pupils. Do we really want a bonus culture in our schools as exists in the City where 100 per cent of bankers believe they are entitled to some sort of bonus and  every year they complain about how it’s too small? Welfare recipients may start out feeling grateful towards government for its help, but at some point that turns into a sense of entitlement. Is that what we want for our teachers?

When success is hard to measure, it leaves room for doubt, and that leads to teachers trying to play the system and taking their eye off what they should be doing, which is educating kids. Try to introduce PRP without pupil results as part of the matrix and use a “black box” approach where teachers get bonuses for no fair, clear and discernible reason, and you’ll create some very angry staff. A system that lacks transparency will not produce the behaviour you want because teachers aren’t clear what is being rewarded or why. Back-biting and complaining are inevitable, as is a work environment that is all about personality and politics. 

But hey, it was the head’s choice, so in the end, it is his problem. Except that it isn’t his choice if he is the head of an LEA maintained school. The pay and conditions document that the unions have long loved and held up as their bible is no longer their ally. Paragraph 22 now insists that schools should introduce PRP, and the unions are in confusion over it. 

The irony of this PRP débacle is that only free schools and academies can choose not to implement performance-related pay. The unions have been famously anti-free school and anti-academy for years, while Gove has been promoting both free schools and academies with great enthusiasm. But while the heads of other maintained schools have to obey the rules, the heads of academies and free schools do not. 

Some PRP proponents imagine that it will magically ensure teachers are paid more. But unlike businesses, if schools work more efficiently and raise their results, they do not bring in more cash. Bankers know that some years they’ll get massive bonuses thanks to their hard work and the bank doing well. But next year they might earn half as much if the bank has a bad year. A school doesn’t have that luxury. If a head wants to pay Paul an extra £1,000 this year, he necessarily has to take it away from Peter, or the school buys fewer textbooks. Money is finite. And amounts are small: a bonus in a school might be £500 or £1,000 at most. That’s the weird thing about money, especially when dealing with people who genuinely want to change the world. Small amounts of money thrown at them won’t motivate them and might even insult them. What it will do, however small it may be, is set teachers against each other and make them feel undervalued. 

If a school only has teachers who are in the top 10 per cent of teachers in the country (because they are clever at hiring talent) and are then forced to implement PRP, it means that teachers in the 90th or 91st percentile nationwide (that school’s worst teachers) would be financially penalised for being not very good. PRP forces good schools into a zero-sum game that can only end with their good staff walking out the door.

Of course some exceptional circumstances might merit the use of performance-related pay precisely because it is so divisive. If a new head is trying to turn around a failing school, then PRP might be useful for a short while, because he might want to divide the staff and put pressure on some very bad teachers, whose jobs would otherwise be secure, to leave. It would depend on the school’s individual situation. This is why any sensible government policy on PRP would allow it to be a choice for all schools. My guess is that the schools that implement PRP will simply give everyone their bonus, making a mockery of what the system is meant to do.

So how do we reward our good teachers? Mentions at briefing, thank-you letters from the head or line manager, shared celebrations for all the staff when school or department goals have been achieved, pep-talks, one-to-one support and feedback as well as promotion are just a few possibilities. All of these help to build a strong culture of collaboration and cohesion, with all the staff united in working towards the success of the school — not just of themselves.