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  1. Politics
2 October 2000

When Mary had a little form to fill

Francis Beckett marvels at the dense paperwork imposed on teachers to get a £2,000 pay rise

By Francis Beckett

My friend Mary (not her real name, since few teachers like to be seen publicly criticising official policy nowadays) is one of the 200,000 or so teachers who applied for a pay increase under the government’s “payment by results” scheme. If you listened to education ministers, you would imagine that she is outraged that the National Union of Teachers, of which she is a member, persuaded the High Court last term to block the scheme temporarily.

Mary is in her forties and has been an infant teacher all her adult life. She is very good at it, and her level of experience and expertise would be worth thousands more every year in most other professions. She has turned down headships because she wants to teach, not shuffle paper. But the new scheme meant that she could not get a decent pay increase, worth £2,000 a year, without jumping through some hoops.

First, her headteacher, like all heads, had to disappear for a day to a meeting in a hotel. Here, someone read aloud from a briefing pack on the scheme. The head was given the same thick pack to take away and, as required, set aside half a day to guide staff through it and through the form that teachers aspiring to cross the pay “threshold” must complete. Then, as instructed, Mary and her colleagues “brainstormed”. They sat in a circle and thought of things to write on the various sections of the form, and of things to avoid writing. They felt there were more constructive ways they could spend the time, but also felt that this is the year to apply. By next year, ministers may have some proper criteria. Better grab the money now, while the government obviously doesn’t know what it’s doing.

It took Mary about ten hours to fill in the form. “Please summarise evidence that you have a thorough and up-to-date knowledge of the teaching of your subject(s) and take account of wider curriculum developments which are relevant to your work” is a fairly typical question. “Please summarise evidence that you take responsibility for your professional development and use the outcomes to improve your teaching and pupils’ learning, and make an active contribution to the policies and aspirations of your school” is another. The head has to comment on every answer.

Before starting, Mary had to spend a couple of hours reading the instructions, clearly written by someone who had once read a management textbook. “For example,” reads one instruction, “don’t say: ‘I make sure my teaching is appropriate to each child’s needs.’ Do say: ‘Feedback from observation/Ofsted praised the way . . . My coursework/lesson planner shows how . . . Homework is regularly marked and available to show how . . .'” Another instruction reads: “Bullet points are preferable to extended prose.” Bullet points are never preferable to prose. They are for the sort of linguistic vandals who lack either the patience or the skill to express themselves properly, and who can write sentences like this: “For Potential [sic] sources of evidence: schemes of work and policies; lesson plans; Ofsted grades and feedback from observation; presentations given; use of ICT to extend pupil resources/e-mail/ internet; active membership of subject associations/liaison groups/professional association committees; qualifications ob-tained; command of national curriculum.”

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Once the head has checked the applications and written extensive comments, they are sent to the private education consultants Cambridge Education Associates, which looks at a proportion of them to make sure that the heads are doing the job properly. Mary’s head approved four applications, including Mary’s. The company looked at three of them. If it looks at three-quarters of all applications, the bill will be enormous. The government has already spent an estimated £100m on staff time taken “brainstorming”, form-filling, form-checking and so on – about £500 for each teacher applying.

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Ministers are trying to give the impression that the teachers who applied must have approved of the scheme. It is more likely that most of them are like Mary: angry, but feeling powerless. The scheme is supposed to be a response to the problem that, if you want to attract bright young people to teaching, the pay has to be improved. But if ministers wanted to raise teachers’ pay, they could just raise it. Good teachers have a precious talent, which we ought to nurture and pay for. Bad teachers need to be encouraged to get out of the profession. This scheme says that some teachers are good enough to be paid half-decently, and that we’ll keep the others in classrooms, coping with their incompetence by not paying them properly.

But even worse is the idle waste of time and money by people who seem to think that teachers have nothing better to do; the endless swamp of jargon that tired teachers must wade through (if you make people read that sort of concrete, sooner or later they start to think like it, and then they really will be unfit to teach); and the irrelevant criteria for judgement that compel teachers to fill in forms in the politically correct style, incorporating the latest edu-speak and remembering to boast that they were minutes secretary for the Little Piddlington Branch of Excellence in ICT Teaching.

The NUT has done David Blunkett a favour. If he must have a performance-related pay scheme, at least he now has a chance to invent one that rewards teachers for teaching.