Is performance related pay a good thing?

  • Is performance related pay a good thing?

Good things can come of performance related pay, but without proper training, support and moderation, it will be dead in the water, says Kevin Harcombe...

Performance Related Pay (PRP) is not new to schools. Headteachers have always had some flexibility in determining staff pay progression, in accordance with the school’s pay policy and with the support of the Governors’ Pay Committee. In practice, however, few teachers miss out on their annual incremental rise or fail to gain an additional point.

The Upper Pay Scale (UPS), though ostensibly performance related, was actually introduced to give a substantial pay rise to class teachers and the PRP element of it (bureaucratic and deeply flawed) was as much a public relations exercise to indicate the then government was getting something in return for its outlay. The vast majority of class teachers eventually moved on to the UPS, supported by the professional associations who would dispute any refusal to progress a teacher.

Headteachers’ pay has long been determined by performance, as measured by governors with the support of an external advisor. Professional associations may well seek similar independent advice in decisions on teachers’ pay in order to give some assurance that headteachers will not discriminate. All of this costs and the system will only work if it is properly funded and linked to teachers’ professional development.

Currently a teacher progresses annually up a six-point pay spine (providing performance has been deemed to be satisfactory). However, while longevity can be an indication of experience and expertise, it is by no means a guarantee. Most headteachers will have seen instances of teachers in their second year outperforming in some respects postholders of 20 years’ experience. Talented teachers are key to a school’s success. It is right, therefore, that quality teaching is rewarded beyond time-served – but it will be a divisive process unless it is transparent, consistent and fair. Leaving aside the question of to what degree teachers are motivated by money, there is an inevitable risk that what will be measured are narrow outcomes and test results. PRP could also be used as a cost-cutting measure at a time when budgets are squeezed, shifting the blame from the government to headteachers.

Keeping consistent

I measure teacher performance against performance management targets (linked to the School Improvement Plan). Evidence includes the outcomes of lesson observations, work sampling, pupil interview, termly pupil progress measures (including annual tests in English and mathematics) and wider contribution to the school (e.g. developing other staff). Objectivity is partly ensured by having the criteria for success published and cross-referenced to the National Standards for Teaching. Also, because most monitoring activities are undertaken in pairs, they are not solely reliant on one person’s judgement / prejudices. Consistency within school is (relatively) straightforward to achieve, consistency from school to school will be much more difficult, as we have already seen with the variability in application of the Ofsted frameworks by different inspection teams.

The national pay scale is being kept but the current fixed points might not be. On the one hand, this gives heads flexibility to give pay progression that is above or below the current fixed points. On the other, it adds to the time involved in setting up a watertight policy and system, especially with the possibility of legal challenges. Even if two teachers get a pay rise, one might complain that his colleague got £2k while he only got £1500 – how do heads justify (if necessary to an industrial tribunal) such nuances? Keeping fixed points would remove some of the decision-making (and potential controversy) from headteachers. Including fixed-term payments for extra responsibilities is a welcome opportunity to reward special projects. Allowing heads to pay the most able teachers above the main scale is also welcome. This may, however, disadvantage ‘challenging’ or even small schools with small budgets who will be competing with ‘leafy’ or large schools, including shiny new academies, to recruit the best staff. The best teachers, if disgruntled and undervalued, will vote with their feet. This could accelerate systemic unfairness. The general level of basic pay is a very important foundation, hence the unions’ insistence on a fair national funding formula.

Are there alternatives?

PRP is not the only way forward. Other possibilities are to reward co-operation by incentivising the success of the whole organisation. Or, if it’s only about results, why not cut out the middle man and incentivise pupils and parents? Offering 250 quid for each pupil who achieves 5 GCSEs, including English and Maths, would be an interesting experiment

Ofsted are, as part of their current inspections, checking on performance management and whether teachers are moved up the pay scale as a result of meeting targets. Similarly, my governors ask whether the regularly outstanding teachers are the highest paid (answer: not all of them). Or, conversely, are the highest paid teachers always outstanding – again no, because pay has been tied to time served and, in any case, performance can and does vary over time.

Will PRP actually work as a means of raising standards? It is wonderful to have your expertise recognised, but hugely dispiriting when it is not. There is little conclusive evidence that PRP motivates, and paying people for doing something can actually reduce their other motives for doing it – the most famous example being blood donation, which is often found to decline if payment is involved.

The system will only be successful if teachers engage with it, and they will only engage with it if it is fair. If it appears to be another cost-saving measure or a means for heads to reward favourites, it will be divisive. Links to pupil progress need to be sold to the profession alongside links to professional development and training. Teachers need to know it is in their interest – that genuine merit, fairly assessed, will be suitably rewarded. The secretary of state has said, sensibly, that further work needs to be done before implementation. I have no doubt that a few heads will apply the rules over severely, whilst others will apply them leniently. The vast majority of headteachers, with governor monitoring, will apply them fairly and consistently. That is why there need to be checks and balances, perhaps through external advisors, to ensure consistency between schools. Governors will need to be trained to make sometimes difficult judgements. This costs, and at a time when budgets are already squeezed. The practicalities need to be right – from the off. If it crashes and burns on take-off it will be dead in the water. If it merely splutters and falters a little, it will probably still be able to fly with some skilful piloting by headteachers, proper support from the DfE and wholehearted buy-in from the teachers.

Pie Corbett