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Last Updated: Friday, 24 September, 2004, 23:08 GMT 00:08 UK
More money for 'super teachers'?
By Mike Baker
BBC education correspondent

Mike Baker graphic
I could hardly believe I was hearing it.

A teachers' union leader was telling me that she fully supported payment by results.

Her members, she added, supported the idea of flexible, individual salaries.

Later that day I was talking to a head teacher in a school. He said his staff fully expected to have their pay based, in part, on how well they taught and what happened to their pupils' results.

Each teacher negotiated their own salary increase with him. If the school budget could not match their expectations he had to "let them go".


If I add that the head teacher was dressed in black T-shirt and jeans, with gelled and spiky hair, then you might start to guess that these conversations were not happening in Britain.

In fact, this was Sweden which, like parts of Britain, is also struggling with a teacher shortage.

In both countries though, the shortages are not general but are concentrated in certain subjects and, especially in England, in so-called "challenging" schools.

This week, the Commons education select committee recommended more flexibility in teachers' pay as a way of tackling these specific teacher shortages.

In particular, the MPs suggested that "super teachers" should be given extra rewards for working in tough inner-city schools.

This comes as the School Teachers' Review Body is also recommending that schools with persistent recruitment problems should be allowed to offer higher rates of pay.

Bizarre results

The Labour government has long wanted more flexibility in pay. But the teachers' unions in Britain remain strongly opposed to both regional pay and payment by results.

Why do British teachers' unions take such a different view of pay flexibility to their Swedish counterparts?

Maybe it is down to history. Teachers have long memories. The National Union of Teachers recalls battles over payment by results as if it were yesterday.

In fact, England's teachers ceased having their pay based on their pupils' results just over 100 years ago.

The system certainly had some bizarre results. The inspectors who conducted the reading tests started to suspect that teachers were cheating. Instead of learning to read, the children appeared to be reciting passages they had learnt by heart.

To try to catch them out, the inspectors asked children to read the words in reverse order. But the teachers were ahead of them; they trained the children to read the passages from back to front!

So payment by results can have unforeseen effects. But several countries are now trying to increase flexibility of teachers' pay.

There is now, of course, a performance-related element in teachers' salaries in England. Staff who want to go beyond the basic pay scale must cross a "quality" threshold.

But the unions have effectively sabotaged this and turned it into a pay rise for all. After the first round of applications to cross the pay threshold, 97% of teachers met the standard.

The unions succeeded in turning performance-related pay into a general pay rise.

Since then the government has attempted to make further rises along the performance pay scale rather more stringent.

In the meantime, a pay bonus scheme for schools has been dropped. Last summer, ministers announced they were ending the school achievement awards scheme, introduced at the same time as performance pay.

The idea was to target bonuses at schools which were high-performing or had made significant improvements. The bonuses were to be distributed to staff.


Ministers dropped the scheme because they said there was no evidence it was raising standards.

Yet 75% of staff in award-winning schools were satisfied with the scheme, even though individual teachers received only between 100 to 400 each.

So far, then, attempts to introduce a significant element of performance pay have failed.

Perhaps the government was not bold enough? Perhaps the unions were unwilling to take the risk that performance pay might divide their membership?

In Sweden, the view seemed to be that individual salaries had led to an overall increase in pay for teachers.

Teaching is both an individual and a team effort, so concerns about individual pay being divisive are understandable.

But working in a difficult, low-achieving inner city school is surely often going to require greater commitment than teaching in a comfortable suburb.

The children in under-performing schools and deprived neighbourhoods have the greatest need of the best and most committed teachers.

Perhaps it is time for another look at how to attract top teachers into the toughest jobs.

We welcome your comments at educationnews@bbc.co.uk although we cannot always answer individual e-mails.

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