Mr Blunkett's failure to stop the teaching brain drain

No one wants to be part of a profession where you are not trusted to do your job
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The Independent Culture
TEACHERS ARE voting with their feet. Prospective teachers are voting with their feet, too. As with many in the public sector, teachers feel they are drowning in paper work and bureaucracy simply to prove that they are doing their job. What, they ask is the point? Something has to change.

Labour's Green Paper, out yesterday, is meant to do just that. For the first time, a government has realised that teachers are the key to the education revolution and that, perhaps, simply nagging them will not help. More radically still, Labour has identified that there is a recruitment crisis in teaching, and that to solve it money must come into the equation. But here comes the rub. There is not enough money to pay for the badly needed across-the-board rise.

The Green Paper is a creative attempt to get around this problem under the guise of modernising the profession. It includes both performance related pay, and fast-tracking selected new recruits. The success of the measures will, to a large extent, depend on the numbers to whom they apply and whether enough believe it could be them.

Early indications are that Labour does intend performance related pay to apply to the majority of the profession. The same cannot be said of the other initiatives. Labour has already announced that maths and science teachers are to get pounds 5,000 more on starting than their arts contemporaries. The small but elite group of super teachers, who can earn up to pounds 40,000, are one term old. David Blunkett has pre-empted objections by coming out fighting. "I don't know a union worth its salt that would call its members out against a new pay award," he has warned. Characterising it as a union battle may enhance Blunkett's reputation as a moderniser, but the issues at stake are not that simple. Of course, part of the problem is the old union adage that everyone should receive the same wage for the same job. But this is not just obstructive Old Labour talk, it is an issue identified by some of the more progressive thinkers in the private sector.

While Blunkett cites industry for performance related pay, many companies have turned their backs on it because they are focussing more attention on the employees' morale and workplace dynamics. The Government might be wise to do the same. Singling out individuals for special treatment is seen as counterproductive to the team spirit; dependence on the criteria for deciding who is to be rewarded, cramps initiative. While market forces do play their part, a similar point could be made about paying science graduates a third more on starting than arts graduates. It is a major disincentive to those hard-pressed teachers who believe their contribution to be less valued. Many of the arts PGCE students at King's College, London, where I work, bitterly resent it. We cannot afford to be complacent about recruitment in this area either. English places are barely filled by the number of applicants.

Nor does the comparison with the civil service for fast tracking work that neatly. Not only are the overwhelming majority of teachers graduates anyway, a first class degree is not a necessary indicator of teaching ability. The current system of rapidly promoting talented, well qualified teachers seems more equitable. It just needs to be better paid. In addition, schools, particularly primary schools, are small institutions, often with only a dozen teachers. A sense of all being in it together is important to the ethos and the morale of the teachers.

It is this that Labour's Green Paper has singularly failed to address. The recruitment crisis and teacher morale are about more than just money, although this is important. What really lies at the heart of the problem, is something that bedevils the public sector in general - the balance between trust and accountability. Traditionally this has set the interests of the public and those involved in education in opposition. The Tories began it when they introduced a tranche of indicators by which those in the public sector might be assessed. In the case of schools, these included a national curriculum, a battery of tests which could be converted into league tables, and Ofsted. With its passion for numerical indicators, Labour does not appear set to buck this trend.

Indeed, it has already added base line testing; national and local target setting of exam results at 11 and 16; and the highly prescriptive literacy hour, to be followed next year by the numeracy hour (both of which, although in theory non statutory, will be inspected by Ofsted). A national curriculum for teacher training, begun by the Tories, has been implemented by Labour- the first time such legislation has been introduced into higher education. The much vaunted value added tables, which would, in theory, have shown that despite poor results some schools were doing a good job, have failed to materialise, but are promised for next year. All of these will stay.

Yet the brain drain from the profession is sufficient evidence that a radical re-think of public sector accountability will have to be made if we are to continue to raise standards within state education. For no one wants to be part of a profession where you are not trusted to do your job and need to be told what to do. The elusive promise that you, too, might be a super teacher, or find a meagre bonus in your pay packet will be insufficient to counter the clearer message that without government guidelines teachers are not quite up to the job.

We need to find measures which teachers feel they can contribute to constructively; that will enhance their own professional life rather than simply be a check to see if they are doing their job. Too often, arguments about accountability have looked to the lowest common denominator to justify a system of punitive monitoring. Above all, we must allow those who are being held accountable to benefit from the system which is holding them to account. In case we forget, it is worth bearing in mind that it is not only teachers who might be affected by this Green Paper. Parents may quite justifiably demur. What parent would not want their child to be taught by those that the system had identified as better than others? Why settle for the average when you could have the best? Perhaps trying to resolve that thorny little problem might encourage Labour to devise a creative solution that benefits everyone involved in education. Let's be genuinely progressive.

Bethan Marshall is lecturer of English education at King's College, London

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