Performance Related Pay: No conceivable way

7 Jan 2014

Sitting in the office at work, procrastinating hard, as ever, I came across a Huffington Post article, the title of which I could scarcely believe: ‘Teachers to be paid £70,000 under salary reforms’. My instant reaction was, predictably, ‘Michael Gove, and positive education reform? Never!’. As I read further, inconceivably- against all odds- Mr Gove seemed to be pushing forward with performance-related pay. On the discovery of this momentous find, I felt obliged to inform my fellow esoteric critics of education policy: the Backbench Twitter account and ex Backbench Education Minister Rory Claydon. Could it be true? Could Gove be turning the corner, becoming the unlikely champion of liberal education reform? Well, as was pointed out to me just a few minutes later, our favourite minister had that day slandered harmless comedy as some form of leftist plot to extirpate the glory of patriotic Great War victory - and so ended that two minute fantasy. 

 

But what was left after the ‘two minute myth’ was an interesting hypothetical debate about the merits and shortcomings of teacher PRP. I implicitly pointed out to the wizard behind the Backbench Twitter account, that an evident issue of PRP would be the pilgrimage of top teachers to top schools, furthering the rich getting richer, poor getting poorer mantra that will probably be written upon this government’s epitaph. I suggested supplementing PRP with incentives for working in poor performing schools; theoretically spreading the teacher quality around more evenly. After all, no one doubts the need for teachers to be paid more: they occupy arguably the most important position of their generation; anything that motivates them and improves teaching standards should be seriously considered. It’s the simplest way to improve society.

Back to the real debate though. My interlocutor next, rightly pointed out that a multitude of variables could constitute a strong performance:

 

Indeed, an issue which heavily extends the length of this discourse because the point made was simply irrefutable. Who’s to say what indicates a strong performance? It’s apples to oranges, peaches to plums. Whilst Mr Gove would invariably profuse that exam scores are the be-all and end-all of teacher performance, I would say it is the ability of a student to independently carry out critical analysis which demonstrates most accurately how successful a teacher has been. Unfortunately, my conception of teacher quality is intangible, and would be an impractical method to use when distinguishing PRP. One-Nil Mr Gove.

Now I could list every possible method of judging the efforts of a teacher, but this exercise would simply be futile and boring for all involved. So forgive the isomorphism, but I am going to continue on the premise that we judge teacher performance on exam results. (It’s unlikely Mr Gove would opt for any option other than this anyway). The point we’re up to is this: we are going to pay extra to teachers who achieve better exam scores. 

Several further questions arise. Firstly, would we be assessing exam scores compared to a student’s potential?  If so, is an ‘E’ student achieving a ‘B’ better than an ‘A’ student achieving an A*? Or vice versa? A lower three grade jump, or a higher single grade jump? To me that is a question that has no answer; nonetheless, I believe it to be a fairer method of PRP than just simply awarding a bigger bonus to those with higher graded pupils. A real conundrum indeed. 

As if we hadn’t run into enough trouble yet, further issues crop up. Hypothetically, if we did agree on a method for awarding PRP, how do we distinguish between exam boards, aspects of the syllabus, even subjects? Is an AQA Physics GCSE any better than a WJEC? Is studying political ideologies, instead of US politics easier? Should a History ‘B’ pay more than an ‘A’ in Sociology.

There are infinite possibilities, and if there’s any politician I’d trust to choose the correct one (there isn’t), Mr Gove would not be the one. In fact he’d be in the bottom tenth of those who I would trust.

All too quickly, we’ve arrived at an impasse. A great idea in principle: meritocratic, beneficial to both teachers and students, a positive direction for policy. But teething problems don’t so much exist, as gaping black holes of infinite possibility; a wrong path potentially corrupting the entire education system. I started off when writing this as an advocate of PRP, but slowly the idea has unravelled and for me seems the potential making of entrenched inequality. I really appreciate teachers and all they do, and would love to see them earn more; they deserve it. But I am acutely aware that some awful teachers are present and hence can’t wholeheartedly advocate an all-round pay increase. 

I would call for mathematical and scientific enquiry into the effects of PRP to be carried out by minds greater than I, enlightening Mr Gove which policy path would be the most beneficial to the greatest amount of people. Undoubtedly he’d ignore them, but at least such knowledge would exist for the next Education Minister, and teachers could see the pay increase we all know they deserve. 

By Adam Isaacs

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