The debate over performance pay shows where power lies – and its not with schools

The debate over performance related pay for teachers has escalated further in the last couple of weeks. This follows the publication of proposals to deregulate the pay system and tie it more closely to some kind of measure of performance.

Opposition to performance related pay has been widespread. The NUT and the NAS/UWT have responded by producing a model pay policy that it claims is in line with the letter of the law but which sticks as closely as possible to the established system.

It’s not the aim of this article to rehearse the arguments for and against the new system. But an examination of how the debate has played out tells us some important things about how the school system is now being managed.

First of all, Michael Gove waded in with a letter to all schools saying that “If every aspect of these were adopted by schools, that would mean putting in place a pay policy that failed to meet statutory requirements”. The detailed statement by the department was however a little less dramatic. Only in two respects was the union advice said to be actually unlawful. On the key issue of progression within the main and upper pay ranges, the DfE could only say that schools would be “limiting their flexibility over incentives to recruit, retain and reward teachers.” In other words, “I don’t like it but I can’t stop you”

Fortunately for Mr Gove however, he has an ally. Sir Michael Wilshaw has also had his say in his usual uncompromising way. First of all though, he let a rather big cat out of the bag by pointing out that there is no extra money to pay the best teachers more. It can only happen if savings are made elsewhere, for example by raising class sizes. Interestingly, Wilshaw’s comments were made to the think tank which advocates cutting school budgets by 18%.

Sir Michael has no doubt though that this would be the right thing to do. And he has made it clear that Ofsted will be policing school pay policies and will expect to see performance related pay put into effect. “It’s a nonsense that we see failing schools where most [teachers] are at the top of the scale – and that’s something that inspectors comment on,” he said.

It isn’t just failing schools though. One specialist in education law concluded that “inspectors will want to see evidence of and policies relating to performance related pay. Those schools that fail to satisfy inspectors face being downgraded – and that could mean ultimately headteachers losing their jobs”.

So what this amounts to is that Ofsted is demanding a particular approach to the management of pay. This would seem to be quite regardless of how effective otherwise a school is. Ofsted is fond of asserting that it has no preferred style of teaching but judges schools according to whether they are effective or not. It would seem that doesn’t apply to pay policy.

The other interesting question is whether Ofsted will apply the same approach to academies and free schools. They are under no statutory duty to comply with STRB guidance. But presumably Ofsted can’t have different expectations of different schools – if it thinks PRP is a key feature of good management, it will have to expect it of academies as well as of maintained schools.

This is becoming an interesting feature of the system. Wilshaw has also had something to say about the curriculum, weighing in in support of the rote learning of basics.  Presumably this is also something that he will expect to see in academies even though their freedom to explore different approaches to teaching and learning is one of the basic elements of the case for academy status.

For all the talk of freedom for schools and a system led by teachers, it is clear that Gove has his enforcers. Put together Wilshaw’s Ofsted and Gove’s tests and examinations and there isn’t much left of any of these supposed freedoms.

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