Performance Related Pay: the Problem, not the Solution

From 5.12 of ‘Learning Matters’

The favourite remedy of the political right for the alleged failings of our teachers, and consequently our schools, is performance related pay (PRP). The argument goes that as teachers vary in their ability to get their pupils to pass exams so they should be paid by the exam results of their classes. Only by dangling financial incentives can people be motivated to work hard.

One of many fundamental problems with such an approach is that pupils vary enormously in their ability to comprehend and make progress, not to mention all the personal emotional baggage that children bring to their lessons.

Consider a secondary school that might have six full time maths teachers whose work is organised and managed by a Head of Department who is also a very able and experienced classroom teacher. Her department would be likely to comprise teachers of varying age, experience and competence. The KS4 classes would most likely be setted according to ability. Each year the Head of Department would have the job of allocating classes to her teachers (and to herself). On the principle that all pupils, regardless of ability, have the right to be taught by the best teachers it would not be right for there to be a hierarchy of teachers with regard to who gets the ‘best’ (easiest to teach) and ‘worst’ (hardest to teach) classes. It is clearly best for all pupils if classes are shared out from year to year. This is also best for teachers because even if all other personal attributes are equivalent, teachers become more competent with experience. Such experience can only be gained by being exposed to the huge variety of demands presented by children of vastly different abilities and social backgrounds. Such arrangements are the only way that an effective Head of Department can develop her team over a period of years. Of course teachers have individual talents and enthusiasms and a wise Head of Department would also want to take these into account.

So how would payment by results work? Much of my book, ‘Learning Matters’ is about the fact that pupils of lower cognitive ability on average can reasonably and rightly be expected to get lower exam grades. They are also likely to make slower progress. Differential payments to teachers (decided by whom on what basis?) would result in the destruction of all sense of common purpose, teamwork and professional co-operation within the department. Far from passing on advice to less experienced colleagues, the opposite would result. One teacher’s personal access to a limited bonus pool would depend on the relative performance of all the teachers in the school so each individual teacher’s strategy for maximising her pay would involve not just her classes getting better results but her colleagues classes getting worse. We see in Part 3 of ‘Learning Matters’ what can happen to standards in a high stakes results based culture. It is hard to imagine a more destructively perverse incentive in a school. This is pure behaviourism, and regrettably it is already degrading standards in our schools as Academies are bringing the management practices of business and the ‘bonus culture’ into the education system. The bonuses always seem to be greater the further you rise in the hierarchy and the less teaching you do. New Free Schools are likely to have even more such ‘freedoms’.

Then there is the question of the pastoral system of the school. How would payment by results be applied to Heads of Year and Form Tutors? Would a form teacher’s pay be affected by the number of persistent truants in her form, and how would pastoral staff be rewarded for their contribution to the academic success of pupils whose personal problems they had successfully addressed? Most destructive of all would be the gradual realisation by all the teachers in the PRP system that it was individual less bright, more badly behaved and poorly attended pupils that stood between them and their performance bonuses. This would not promote a healthy staff/pupil relationship culture.

There is however a sense in which payment by results is perfectly reasonable and has existed in schools for decades. There are (were) differentiated pay scales and allowances for responsibilities. Unfortunately the changes made to teachers’ pay and conditions in recent years have tended to erode and constrain rather than extend such differentiation, which recognises and rewards experience, expertise and responsibilities.

The best way to hold teachers to account and deal with underperformance is to be fully open and transparent about the pay and job description of every single employee in the organisation. This means publishing the pay, pay scale and detailed job description and schedule of responsibilities for every teacher including the Senior Management Team and the headteacher or ‘Executive Principal’ as she is now more likely to be called. This information should be publicly available to anybody and everybody obviously including governors and parents. This was the system in my headship school and it caused no problems at all. When you are paid from the public purse the public has a right to know exactly how much you are paid and what you are expected to do for it.

Such a system would be met with shock and horror in the English world of business, but it is completely normal in more successful economies especially in Scandinavia  where anyone can look at anybody else’s pay and tax returns with a few clicks of a mouse on a personal computer. If the business world doesn’t like it they don’t have to do it, but neither should inferior systems be imposed on schools by people that don’t know any better.

The transparency approach also provides a sound structure for accountability. All teachers have line managers with specified responsibilities for the performance, individually and collectively, of their teams. There should be no ‘performance bonuses’ of any kind – ever. Everybody is expected to do the job they are paid for. It really is as simple as that. Some individuals will outgrow their current job and wish to apply for a more highly paid one, either within the same school or elsewhere. Some individuals may be failing to meet the requirements of their job description so line managers have to address that through established procedures and fair processes. Obviously nobody should be sustained in a job they are not doing properly or retained in such a job if after receiving appropriate support, they still can’t do it effectively.

I had a number of jobs in the private sector before I became a teacher and saw plenty of petty status seeking, fiddling, skiving, idling and much worse besides. In contrast when I first became a teacher in 1971 I was surprised by what was expected of me in terms of hours, expertise and professionalism and I was in awe of the very high standards of many of my more experienced colleagues, who taught me everything I know about schools.

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One Response to Performance Related Pay: the Problem, not the Solution

  1. Pingback: Is effective teaching taking place in Academies? | Roger Titcombe's Learning Matters

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