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Stephen  Bevan

Performance pay in the classroom: learning the lessons?

Authors: Stephen Bevan Steve Bevan

12 December 2012

One of the least prominent announcements made in Mr Osborne’s Autumn Statement last week focused on public sector pay. Essentially, having flown the kite of regional (or ‘market facing’) pay in the public sector during the Budget, the idea has now been dropped as unworkable. Those of us who have worked in this area for a while are not surprised at all that the Treasury have decided to abandon these plans as they had very little support and were always doomed to failure, along with all previous efforts. The arguments against regional pay are summarised here.

So, is it safe to conclude that we are now witnessing a return to measured, evidence-based policy-making on the issue of public sector pay? Well, in the same speech Mr Osborne announced that – having been forced to abandon one attempt to decentralise control over pay – he would put his faith in another: performance-related pay (PRP). This has been met, of course, with cries of ‘oh no, not again’ by teaching unions, especially those with memories of previous attempts to link a higher proportion of teachers’ earnings to their classroom performance. I guess you’d expect this response from most of the unions, as they have always had a principled objection to PRP. What about the evidence?

On the face of it, it seems fair that better-performing teachers should be paid more than those who are just average or under-performing. It also feels intuitive that the prospect of earning more by achieving great results should provide teachers with a powerful incentive to work harder and deliver better pupil outcomes. I’m sure that both Mr Osborne and Mr Gove’s enthusiasm for more PRP in teaching is because they genuinely believe that this is how PRP works everywhere and because they think these proposals will command wide public support among those who bemoan educational standards or who think that teachers have been protected from the pressures of what they like to call ‘the real world’.

And so to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) – that part of the OECD which monitors educational standards across over 70 countries. PISA data on English pupil’s attainment has not always made comfortable reading for Education Ministers down the years, though any slight improvement in our relative position on Maths or Literacy is usually seized upon as evidence which supports government policy. It is safe to conclude, however, that PISA analysis is regarded as authoritative. Earlier this year, in an attempt to understand the drivers of excellent pupil outcomes, they carried out some analysis to explore the question: Does performance-related pay for teachers improve pupil attainment? The results make interesting reading for anyone interested in evidence-based policy-making.

The report concludes that there is a strong case for PRP where teachers are poorly paid relative to a measure of GDP per head. However, in countries where teacher’s pay is high relative to this measure, PRP has no demonstrable impact on pupil attainment. In England, as you might have guessed, our teachers are in the relatively high pay category across the economy as a whole. There may be a number of reasons for these results, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that the educational case for PRP is far from convincing.

Perhaps there are lessons from New Jersey, where a new agreement has just been struck between the Governor Chris Christie and the Teacher’s Unions to introduce performance-related pay. In this scheme, the plan is to use peer evaluations of performance to drive the allocation of PRP awards. This is fascinating because there is research evidence that peer assessments at work are among the most reliable predictors of job performance and future potential. However, there is also evidence that team-working and collaboration in professions like teaching are important drivers of school performance. If PRP is used to drive competitive or individualistic behaviour rather than collective effort, the ramifications can be serious.

Mr Gove’s proposals put teacher appraisals at the centre of the administration of PRP in English schools. In theory, this will allow schools to link appraisals to a performance rating which, in turn, will result in a pay award for those who merit it. It’s the way many PRP schemes operate. However, as both a former teacher and a chair of governors, my experience is that teacher appraisals are only rarely about performance. If anything, they focus predominantly on staff development, training and career progression. Too often they are cosy chats where, although mildly critical feedback might be given on some aspects of classroom management or planning, the emphasis is overwhelmingly positive and nurturing. This is what might be expected in a learning environment where we know most pupils do better if they are encouraged and supported rather than criticised or censured. Schools do not have the same ‘deliver or get your coat’ culture of, say, an investment bank or a law firm, nor is that what most of us would want.

One of the main lessons from organisations where PRP is used is that is has to be compatible with and reinforce the prevailing climate of performance management. It can never, by itself, transform a collaborative culture into one which harshly separates sheep from goats or incentivises a step change in output or outcomes just through the mistaken assumption that people driven by a sense of vocation are as motivated by bonus opportunities as folk in the City.

It’s great we are having this debate but I really hope that evidence on the effectiveness of PRP in teaching is heeded and that it is not drowned out in the public debate on this topic.