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9 April 1999

Why teachers don’t want to be careerists

Michael McMahonargues that professional competition has no place in schools

By Michael McMahon

When the Education Secretary David Blunkett was booed and heckled at the annual conference of the National Union of Teachers, he was clearly frustrated – indeed, angered – by his reception. On the very same occasion in a previous year, he had been jostled, too. Yet he seemed genuinely surprised. This time, he had come to offer bread to teachers – better pay and a more “professional” career structure – and all they seemed to want to do was throw stones. He rebuked the delegates: “What is sad is that you can only manage cheers for being against things rather than being in favour. It is a very strange world we live in.”

What is rather stranger – to teachers, at least – is the world that Blunkett wants them to live (and work) in.

The Education Secretary’s plans promise most teachers the chance, at least, of a pay increase of up to 10 per cent. Yet most teachers reject them. Such rises are offered only upon acceptance of the one great unacceptable: performance-related pay. Hostility to this, the very principle upon which the government’s plans for reforming the business of education are built, has dominated the teachers’ union conferences of the past fortnight.

Why teachers should so strongly resist what is accepted by so many others as a fact of working life can be puzzling for outsiders. It clearly baffles Blunkett. Indeed, his determination to impose performance-related pay has provoked the NUT to call for a strike – the first for many years. But teachers have their reasons, not all of them lightly to be dismissed.

One strand of opposition is rooted in history. The NUT was founded, 129 years ago, with the very purpose of defeating the crude system of payment by results that then obtained. It took 25 years, but it won – a victory that contemporary quick-fix politicians would do well to remember. That’s all in the past; things, it can be argued, are different now.

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What is less easily brushed aside is the philosophical argument – though, in the heat of the present debate, it often gets obscured by the rant and the rhetoric, and has most skilfully been buried by the government’s fait-accompli approach. Blunkett’s 40-page “technical consultation document on pay and performance management” is terrifyingly convincing – if you accept that the relation of pay to performance is appropriate for teaching. Take away that principle, and it falls apart. But it was the detail, not the principle, that was up for discussion, and it is only in the detail, including the timing, that concessions are now (with studied reluctance and ostentatious magnanimity) being offered.

The principle behind it deserves at least to be questioned. It’s not just that teachers recoil at the idea that they might be assessed by the results of their pupils: unjust though that may seem to many, it is, in a way, a detail. No: teachers reject such a system because it requires them to be what the majority of them are not: self-seeking careerists. They are uncomfortable with the idea that they should compete against their fellows; they see themselves as engaged in a mutually supportive enterprise. Most of them just want to be able teach the subject they love to the kids in their care. They’d like a little more money, sure, and to be cut a little more slack; indeed, they’d be grateful for any help or training that would enable them to do better the job which they regard as their vocation, and to help others do the same.

One of the purposes of Blunkett’s proposals was to encourage good practitioners in the classroom to stay there, instead of drifting into pen-pushing management. Yet under the proposed dispensation, such teachers, if they are to be rewarded, will not only have to teach, but also produce more paperwork, building up a dossier of their own achievements. And each year, they will have to appear before their line-managers, portfolio in one hand and cap in the other, to plead their case for a new pay rise, or to keep the one they’ve got.

Moreover, so comprehensive and detailed are the criteria by which it is proposed to judge their performance that some teachers fear a future in which they risk being ensnared in a management and assessment system of Orwellian totality, in which employees are required not just to consent and comply, but to provide evidence that they have done both at all times. Defenders of the government’s proposals would claim that in their very comprehensiveness lies their strength: that it is right that teachers should, for example, “demonstrate that they consistently . . . maintain high levels of behaviour and discipline, deal promptly and effectively with bullying, treat pupils fairly and promote respect for others”. Of course it is: but the unsettling word here is “demonstrate”.

The kind of teacher who is most likely to do all these things well is the kind least likely to want to waste time recording instances of such achievements so that they can be held to his credit. As those who have endured the suffocating culture of Ofsted inspections over the past few years know only too well: to the assessment-minded, nothing is valued unless it can be measured, and the result written down. Which is not to say that there won’t be some teachers only too willing to play such a system for what it is worth. Sadly, it will be the likes of them, and not inspirational and charismatic heroes like those of the soft-focus recruitment ads that flicker so seductively across cinema screens up and down the land, who will feel most at home in the profession that the government has planned for the future. It’ll be a brave new world indeed that has such teachers in it.

The writer is a secondary school teacher

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