What will be the casualties of PISA and performance-pay?


With performance-related pay and pressure over PISA, are we facing a future of nothing but targets and prescribed curriculum in the classroom? Gerald Haigh spells out his nightmare vision of the future.

When I think about performance-related pay (PRP) for teachers, I remember Jack. It’s not his real name, and you wouldn’t know him any way, but you will recognise him, if you see what I mean. Jack taught English to lower ability sets in a comprehensive school. Had there been PRP then, I suppose it would have been relatively easy to measure the progress of his classes against targets. 

But teaching English was only a part of the reason why Jack was there. His main role, at least as far as the rest of us could see, was to run the school brass band. 

We had a splendid band that enlivened our school concerts. More importantly, they carried the name of the school into the community and far beyond, as invited guest performers with major adult groups and at music festivals across the country. Would you care to measure that, or set a target for future development? 

Yes, I know that PRP allows for contributions to the wellbeing of the school, but really it is a lot more complicated than it first appears.

Jack’s timetable, you see, meant that he taught a lot of children with learning and behaviour difficulties, so it is not surprising that quite a few oddballs and miscreants found themselves in the band, taught to play from scratch by Jack in his own time. Many of them were given a new sense of pride, purpose and achievement, and learning how to work with others for the common good.

All of this, in turn, fed through, to a greater or lesser degree, to each student’s classroom work and general behaviour, in ways which brought benefit not only to them, but to all their teachers and to the record of the school as a whole.

Put numbers on all that could you? Certainly you could try, but it would not be easy. The problem lies when someone has to make comparisons. How does Jack’s contribution to the school measure up against that of Jill, who concentrates wholly on her teaching and her subject and whose students, year after year, achieve exam grades significantly higher than the school average? Is she more deserving than Jack, or less? Do we hesitate because she is so focused that she is not really interested in sharing her experience with other subject leaders?

But I’m not telling anyone anything that they do not know already. Discussions about notional Jacks and Jills, and many others, must be going on endlessly even as I write.

Some, of course, will say that we must be focused and unsentimental about this. I’ve heard more than one headteacher use the famous quote by Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, that says: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

And in school of course, the main thing is teaching and learning (okay, that’s two, but we know what we mean). Nobody would argue about that. But when push comes to shove, perhaps it means that the difficult-to-measure value that comes from all those off-balance-sheet skills and activities deployed by Jack are, in the end, not the “main thing”.

Yes, they are clearly having good effects on students, but at what cost? Is this the best way to deploy excellent professionals? Suppose schools across the land were to forget their bands, choirs, drama productions and teams. Then a whole host of enthusiastic and able teachers would be free to apply themselves, armed with renewed vigour and a wealth of extra preparation time, more assiduously to their classroom jobs. Surely, then, the unquantifiable benefits of their extra-curricular work would be replaced by a measurable improvement in performance data?

Perhaps we really are in a position where, in order to chase PISA ratings, we need to strip back our schools to the point where nothing happens but classroom lessons covering the prescribed curriculum via a series of clearly defined targets.

I feel in my bones that there are influential people out there who see that as a desirable and achievable aim. Well, all I can say is that if ever a scenario deserved the qualifying adjective “nightmare”, then that’s the one. And I do not have to spell out the glaring flaws in it.

But it won’t happen will it? Teachers and heads are not like that. “I didn’t come into the job to... etc etc.”

And yet, once the measuring starts, the siren call of the management mantra that says “If it’s worth doing it’s worth measuring” becomes increasingly irresistible. I cannot help thinking that the pay policies now emerging will lean towards quantifiable targets and measurable performance. That seems inevitable, if for no other reason than to make decisions transparent and legally defensible.

I suspect, in fact, that the trend is already discernible. The days when major resources were deployed to support showcase groups and events are fading and in some of the more excessive examples, staffrooms will breathe sighs of relief. But there are babies and bathwater here and that song that goes: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

  • Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary, middle and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship.


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