Really, Tristram? The “totally convincing” case for performance related pay exposed

Tristram Hunt 1Having giving his support to academies and “parent-led academies” (aka free schools), Labour’s new shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt has now committed the party to another key right-wing goal for education: “performance-related pay” (PRP). He told the BBC Question Time audience: “I’m in favour of performance-related pay. We had a great report come out today by Alan Milburn on social mobility, and the chapters in there on education are totally compelling.”

In a subsequent interview with Andrew Marr, days after his promotion to the Shadow Cabinet, Hunt added “… what teachers want is respect from politicians. … You listen to their views and you take them with you”. It is a safe bet that Hunt did not discuss performance-related pay with teachers before declaring it Labour party policy. A strange way of commanding respect by listening and taking people with you, one might say.

Performance-related pay is a mainstay of the neo-liberal concept of education. It is an essential part of the privitisation and marketisation agenda. Just as this approach makes schools into independent units outside of the framework of local democracy, PRP assumes that teachers work as individuals rather than in teams.

PRP is one of the key demands of the business-backed “charter school” movement in the US and of the for-profit “free schools” in Sweden. Neither has, overall, impressive results to report. On the other hand, the Finnish education system, which is universally admired for its achievements, does not use PRP.

The NUT and NASUWT are both opposed to PRP, as is the Socialist Educational Association, Labour’s educational affiliate organisation. To whom is Tristram Hunt talking? His claim that the case for PRP in Alan Milburn’s report on social mobility and child poverty is “totally compelling” may baffle those who read it. There is nothing in this paper that remotely resembles such a case. Milburn talks of the need for incentives across a wide range of jobs, and a suggestion that they they should be used to get the best teachers into difficult schools. That’s it. There is no discussion of the the arguments for and against PRP (it not even mentioned in the section on schools). Medhi Hasan recently drew attention to the research-based arguments against PRP.

All that the report says on incentives is “…teachers need to be supported and rewarded for helping disadvantaged and low attaining students to catch up, and excel.” and “strengthening incentives for the best teachers to teach disadvantaged students in poorly performing areas and broadening the school failure regime.” So just where Tristram Hunt found a “totally compelling” case for PRP is something of a mystery.

Some public opinion polls show that a majority of people think that PRP for teachers is a good idea. They would wouldn’t they, if the question is posed without presenting the arguments for and against. In general terms the idea of pay for performance seems only fair. But how does it apply teamwork? How would it impact on teams? Besides, different polls with different questions get contrary results.

The arguments against PRP for teachers have been clearly made over a long period, even if Tristram Hunt has not yet come across them in his search for “totally compelling” views. The NUT says about PRP:

  • measuring teachers’ individual contributions is next to impossible – our profession is based on teamwork and every teacher contributes in some way to every student’s development
  • there is no evidence that linking pay to performance motivates teachers in any case – but it will destroy the value of appraisal as a process supporting professional development
  • decisions are going to be subjective, unfair or even discriminatory – they will be based on head teachers’ personal likes and dislikes, the funding position of the school and a host of other reasons that aren’t based on “performance” at all.

NUT leader Christine Blowers adds: “PRP is increasingly discredited elsewhere as a means of motivating employees and there has never been any evidence that it motivates teachers or improves their performance.”

It is true that Hunt has repeated the Labour Party’s commitment to national negotiated pay and conditions for teachers, but what does this mean when pay can be varied, on the basis of a headteacher’s assessment of individuals among their staff? What would be the limits of the variation allowed? What would be the dangers of favouritism and patronage? Would this not elevate individual performance above teamwork?

Tristram Hunt’s support for PRP on the basis of no argument and no discussion is just another worrying sign that, if left to his own devices, he will take the Labour Party into the next election with a set of key ideas that are merely variants of those espoused by Michael Gove. The level of educational campaigning will need to rise significantly to convince the shadow education secretary that he needs to talk to teachers and consult with his own party members before announcing new directions in Labour policy.

  1. If ever anyone pointed him out to me said go on guess which party, I would without doubt say Tory.

    He is a New labour lad and Progress supporter is he not I cannot be bothered to check.

  2. The LSE have done a number of very detailed reports on PRP in the public sector over the past decade that has conclusively shown that it either has now positive effect on performance, or in many cases actually damages it through reduced morale and increased alienation and cynicism.

    In fact, the only way their reports saw it having any positive increase on performance/productivity was if the performance pay bonuses were very large, meaning a greatly increased pay budget would be needed. However, Give has imposed PRP within the old pay budget meaning that for every teacher who ‘wins’ there must be one who ‘loses’ as Peter is continually robbed to pay Paul.

    What is more, Gove has turned on its head the decades-old system whereby teachers for the first 5 years had reduced salaries before becoming ‘time served’ and getting to the proper ‘rate for the job’ (point 6 on the main pay scale – currently £31,868 outside London), and overnight created a system where the new entrant point (from last month this is just £21,844 a year outside London) is now the official rate for the job, and anything else is a bonus that you may get if you are lucky and your headteacher likes you.

    Excellent teachers have always had chances to get better rewards (additional allowences, upper pay scale, advanced skilled teacher status etc), but now we are seeing through Give’s lies and Labour incompetence (forst Twigg and now Hunt) national pay being destroyed and a race to the bottom beginning.

    It is hardly surprising that more teachers are now leaving the profession than can be recruited, and the fact that Hunt has been outflanked to the left and outmanouvered in terms of publicity by Clegg of all people on the issue of free schools says it all really about how appallingly bad his start as a shadow minister has been so far.

  3. A very good article. I totally agree with all the points raised. Also James Martin’s comment is spot on.

  4. Thinking about PRP a bit more it occurs to me that the “team working” argument against it needs to be fleshed out more than is normally the case. If one concedes, as most of us do, that higher levels of income are appropriate for work that requires a high level of training/education and if one also concedes, as most of us do, that it is often appropriate to pay more to someone who can work faster and better than other people then the “team working” argument won’t stand up on its own.

    Within a team there may be quite distinctive functions. Thus a team may include a programmer, a manager, and a secretary. The fact that they all work in a team is not a reason to pay them all the same. They are doing distinctive jobs all of which incur different rates of pay. Even within such a team it may make sense to increase, say, the secretary’s pay because he/she does an excellent job and it is important to retain those skills.

    So, I think that one has to point out that the real point is about teachers on the same grade within a team. Teachers who carry out quite different functions are liable to be on a different grade (e.g. a head of department). So the point is really about not distinguishing between teachers who are doing the same work on the same grade within a team context.

    Of course even then it is possible to argue that some of those teachers do a better job than others and it is at that point that the standard arguments against PRP kick in. If teachers at the same grade make unequal contributions, as is commonly the case, then what would be the overall impact of trying to distinguish between them and pay one more and how would this be done?

    It is when one drills down to this level of detail that the “team work” arguments against PRP have their real bite. All teachers must be presumed to be carrying out the tasks required of them in a professional manner. If there are good grounds for thinking that this is not so then it is a case for managerial action. Outside of that (1) there are no clear and generally accepted criterion for what is good teaching, (2) any such judgements reached by managers would be bound up with various non-teaching considerations, (3) as a result of (2) any such judgement would have a strong tendency to be used as a management tool to control staff, (4) as a result of (3) such judgements would tend to reinforce dogmatic ideas and block innovation, (5) most importantly of all individual pay adjustments on the basis of alleged quality for teachers on the same grade within a team would have the disastrous effect of encouraging teachers to focus on their individual contributions in a way that the team would come to be seen merely as a sum of individual efforts rather than as something which adds to more than that sum.