The education story: performance related pay

Looking back at the Conservative government’s education reforms you tend to see a familiar pattern: the overstating of change and understatement of continuity, the botched implementation of policies in a resistant system and the unintended consequences that are shouldered by school leaders. I’ve covered Ebacc and Free Schools in previous posts. A similar story seems to have emerged from a recent evaluation of the impact of introducing performance related pay in schools.

  • Overstating Change

Headlines such as “Unions’ fury as Osborne scraps national pay deal so that schools can pay better teachers more” painted an exciting picture of reform in 2012. As always this hugely overstated the change and its potential impact. New Labour tried a similar thing- the ‘threshold’ system was introduced in early 2000s in an attempt to link the pay and performance of teachers. The result? The vast majority of teachers still progressed up beyond the threshold with few denied. The Coalition’s pay changes were ultimately limited to giving Head Teachers the choice to place teachers higher up the pay scale if they wanted and to deny new teachers the same rate of pay from their old position. In the context of limited school budgets and other pressures on schools, there’s little evidence that areas of need have been able to use these powers to actually attract good teachers.

  • Botched implementation

To a certain extent the government can claim success in terms of implementation- the vast majority of schools have theoretically taken on the new reforms. There is also some evidence of teachers moving up the payscale faster. How head teachers arrive at these decisions is far from clear- especially to their staff. Interestingly, only 34% of teachers felt their pay system was ‘fair’ perhaps indicating that there is a level of arbitrariness/lack of transparency in terms of who gets to skip up the pay scale.

Overall, only 7% of headteachers have seen any impact on recruitment as a result of the new flexibility. This is probably due to the wider pay picture- teachers experienced a real terms decrease in pay of 2% between 2010-2015. Its all very well trying to slice up the pie in a different way, but when the pie is getting smaller and smaller it doesn’t feel like much of a reward for effort to be paid £50 more than your colleague.

  • Unintended consequences

I would say this is the most important section of the evaluation if you want to understand the real impact of pay reforms on schools:

“The main challenges associated with the pay reforms, as reported by case-study interviewees, were: the additional staff time involved in collecting and reviewing evidence for performance reviews; the pressure on teachers to meet pupil outcome targets.”

Just like with academisation, it seems like all these new powers tend to create more work for educators in terms of ticking boxes and managing personnel, but with little challenge to the cultures of schools they don’t produce the benefits. It is certainly not clear that this extra work helps to directly improve anyone’s teaching. Appraisal systems have produced a never-ending pile of work for Heads of Faculties who spend far too much of their first term chasing up evidence and filling out forms to approve pay instead of actually talking about teaching and learning with the members of their team. Yes, good school leaders try to make these meetings meaningful; but it can be challenging when there is the pressure to produce the perfectly phrased success criteria by the end of the discussion. As a result, performance management targets tend to be used to make the work that teachers already do explicit rather than actually producing new incentives or driving innovation.

If anything it has created a language for teachers whereby they focus on their targets and question the purpose of work that goes beyond those. Targets become an excuse to limit yourself as a teacher or focus on one thing at the expense of everything else: why should I run a weekly book club for a whole year if I can a pay rise for running a well-documented and targeted museum trip? Why should I run after-school intervention for my Year 10s if my target is to secure particular outcome for my Year 11s? Even if I’m confident that the former is more important because of the needs of the group, the incentive is created to focus exclusively on the latter purely out of fear, if nothing else.

Some of this can mitigated by consistency across appraisals but for the amount of work it requires to achieve this you have to question the benefit. As with most attempts to introduce market incentives into education there is zero discussion in the evaluation of whether any of this has had any material effect on improving the outcomes for children; we will just have to shrug out shoulders and hope that it does.

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