Performance pay: Searching for the jetpack…

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Is it not futile to reward or penalise teachers for their performance, when much of what they achieve is dictated by the system in which they work? Gerald Haigh poses some tough questions.

The personal jetpack is such a wonderful idea. Comedian Paul Merton constantly longs for one, and though engineers have been building alarmingly dodgy versions since the 1940s, we still don’t have one that we can strap on to go to work.

So many things in life are like that – seductive, desirable – but not yet proven in day-to-day use.

Take performance-related pay (PRP), for example. In January I wrote about the problem of trying to reduce the rich spectrum of a teacher’s work to a set of measurable results (See http://bit.ly/1nSPQQQ).

Now, of course PRP is here and the challenge is to see it operated wisely, legally and equitably, in line with the plentiful advice available from professional associations and, of course in these very pages.

That’s surely crucial, because it seems to me that if PRP is not run with almost super-human wisdom and foresight, schools will experience some of the problems already encountered out there in the big wide world of business. A common one is the manipulation of employee appraisal ratings to make them fit a predetermined distribution. After all, we can’t have too many people crowded on the top rung can we? 

The usual reason for such cases, of course, is that there simply is not enough money in the budget to pay all the high performers. Schools, I’d imagine, can easily find themselves in that position. 

But perhaps the most problematic aspect of PRP that I’ve encountered is that it risks shifting the focus of improvement from the institution as a whole to the individual.

“But,” you might say, “isn’t that the point? Didn’t Tristram Hunt voice shared wisdom when he said ‘the difference that a good teacher can make is absolutely stunning’?”

Well, yes. But the difficulty here is the very old one that’s exemplified in that saying about the wood and the trees. It may well be right to identify and reward the individual qualities of teachers, but it’s equally necessary to remember that they do not work alone, enjoying total freedom of action.

Each teacher occupies a role in a complicated and often incomprehensible institution called a school, embedded in a system over which he or she only has limited control and which can be supportive or not. To dive straight in on a teacher, ignoring the environment in which he or she works, seems likely to lead to false assumptions, invalid comparisons and unfair outcomes – and ultimately will do little or nothing for whole-school improvement.

School-based examples, though obviously less egregious than that, are very recognisable. Effective behaviour management, (what we used to call simply “discipline”, as in “what’s he like on discipline?”) is an aspect of a teacher’s performance hugely affected by the whole-school approach to the issue.

Does the leadership team leave teachers to sink or swim behind closed classroom doors, judging the survivors “strong” and the strugglers “weak”? Or do they run a robust whole-school behaviour policy with an openly determined commitment to enabling everyone to teach effectively? There’s a big difference, and much the same, surely, applies across the whole of school life.

Top-down management decisions, whether taken rationally or not, on curriculum, timetables, resources, ICT, approved pedagogies, allocation of responsibilities, CPD and a host of other areas, all have the potential to affect individual performance, appraisal and pay. And, again, if a policy is flawed, will rewarding or penalising some individuals put it right, or promote across-the board progress?

Incidentally, it seems that failure to see the essential futility of attempting to reward or penalise individual workers who are in fact controlled, wholly or partly, by the system in which they work, is a universal blind spot. 

Management guru W. Edwards Deming, who has many disciples across the world, including in education, felt very strongly about the practice of allocating personal reward or penalty to individuals whose actions are actually controlled by the system.

“Traditional appraisal systems reward people who do well in the system. They do not reward attempts to improve the system.”

(Las Vegas casino croupiers are reputedly rewarded or fired on the basis of results which are governed by the turn of a card or the spin of a wheel.)

Still, all that said, despite all the doubts, most of us, surely, believe that those who do their jobs particularly well should have a bigger share of the pot. 

That being so, the pragmatic teacher might conclude that if we are to continue to reward our best colleagues, then let’s have the mechanism for it well-defined, universally understood, properly organised and efficiently implemented, so that staffrooms across the nation can relax in equanimity, and the knowledge, to quote Voltaire, that: “All is best, in the best of all possible worlds.”

And there, of course, is the rub. Voltaire, if I read him correctly, has his tongue in his cheek, and by far the most common reaction to PRP goes something like: “I’ve no problem with the idea. It’s how it’s done that worries me.”

As a result you wonder whether the fair and welcome PRP system really is like the personal jetpack – an exciting idea, but beyond the reach of human ingenuity as a practical device. Maybe I’m wrong. I so often am, and time will tell.

  • Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. You can find him on Twitter @geraldhaigh1

 


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