Government and unions should stop digging and start talking

Michael Gove’s proposals to link teachers’ pay progression to their performance have  led to predictable responses from most of the teachers’ unions. Both sides have ratcheted up the rhetoric and seem to be girding their loins for an epic clash of wills.  The government and the unions are both being extremely diligent with their spades and shovels digging themselves into positions which are not helpful for the future of the education system.

First things first. The government has been right to bring a new emphasis to performance appraisal and management of all headteachers and teachers. No school and no school system can perform well if we  somehow pretend that by virtue of working in the world of education everybody will perform at the highest level. We know that it is rubbish and we need to identify areas where staff need development and support and challenge those teachers who are persistently underperforming. We owe it to children and young people to do that.

From talking to headteachers whose schools have been inspected under the new Ofsted framework, the inspection system is providing a good discipline that is helping  governors and senior leadership team to focus on this issue. And in principle I have no problem with pay progression related to performance – a modern public service should recognise hard work and merit rather rewarding people automatically for another year of service.

However, the new arrangements are not without their potential downsides. First, there is a risk that classsroom observation could come to be seen as a mainly judgmental rather than developmental process. If that happens that would set us back years. It will take time for all schools to learn how to use performance management in a mature way and to get the balance between support and challenge. That in itself is an argument for making sure the skills are well embedded before linking performance directly to pay progression.

Second, it is  possible that the stakes for a performance appraisal will become so high that it will induce teachers to game the system and maximise (and even manipulate) their contribution to improvement. If there is one thing I learnt during my time in government it is that unintended consequences nearly always accompany changes in accountability systems. One possible outcome could see staff focusing more on their own performance rather than working together collaboratively with colleagues – which is what really makes a difference to the quality of teaching and learning.

Third, the advantages claimed for performance related pay progression are not as strong as is sometimes claimed as the Education Endowment Foundation has highlighted – see http://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/toolkit/performance-pay.

Fourth and perhaps most important is the macho even confrontational pleasure that the Secretary of State seems to take in picking a fight with the unions. Up to a point some of the teaching unions deserve what they get – they should get real about the importance of their members being observed in class and stop trying to place artificial limits on how often this should occur. Similarly capping the frequency of reporting to parents is wrong.

However, as Greg Hurst argued in The Times on the 14th December, “Mr Gove’s combative tone risks sapping morale and inhibiting an enhanced sense of professional vocation among teachers.”  The government is never going to achieve its ambitions for children and schools if it succeeds in turning swathes of teachers into villains. Ben Levin, who played a major role in leading school improvement in Ontario, agrees that criticisms and shortcomings in the system should be brought out into the open but argues that reform strategies must be explained and implemented in ways that “engage the idealism and professional commitments”. 

At a time when teachers have a wage freeze Michael Gove would do well to acknowledge the contribution that vast numbers of teachers are making to help improve educational standards. He should celebrate the moral purpose and commitment that underpins the efforts of thousands of schools and teachers on behalf of their pupils. The unions for their part should focus more on supporting their members’ professional aspirations, turn off the workerist rhetoric and engage constructively in polices and practices to improve teaching and learning.

Parents expect and deserve policy makers and teachers to behave like grown-ups rather than like children squabbling in the playground. No-one will gain from an ugly dispute: the reputation and standing of teachers will be damaged, the tarnished image of the profession will put off those who the government most wants to attract into the profession, and children and young people will be the piggies-in-the-middle. So we need both sides to stop digging their trenches and preparing their defences and come out and engage in serious dialogue and debate based on what is in the best interests of the nations pupils.

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