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Stephen  Bevan

Performance pay won’t perform in the classroom

Authors: Stephen Bevan Professor Stephen Bevan

22 October 2013

An article by Schools Minister David Laws last week displayed an enthusiasm for performance-related pay (PRP) for teachers which is based more on ideology than evidence. I’m sure Mr Laws genuinely believes 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 he likes to call ‘the real world’. His claims for PRP are that it will ‘reward excellence, raise the status of the teaching profession and make it attractive to top graduates and career-changers’. There is only mixed evidence that PRP will deliver these but I was most interested that there was no mention of standards or exam results in his article – surely an important set out outcomes for pupils and for the country.

There is a good reason for this – because he and his officials know very well that PRP for teachers in the UK will make no difference to pupil attainment. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) – the part of the OECD which monitors educational standards across over 70 countries - 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 in each country. However, in countries where teacher’s pay is high relative to this measure, PRP has no demonstrable impact on pupil attainment at all. In the UK, as you might have guessed with an all-graduate workforce, our teachers are in the relatively highly pay category across the economy as a whole. So the educational case for PRP is far from convincing and I would argue that – compared with decent basic pay – the recruitment and retention case is also quite flimsy.

A big lesson from the evidence is that Ministers shouldn’t rely too much on PRP as a ‘magic bullet’ because it is based on the mistaken assumption that people like teachers who are driven by a sense of vocation are as motivated by bonus opportunities as folk in the City.


This blog first appeared as a letter in the Evening Standard on 21 October 2013.