Why payment by results is the only course for teachers

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The Independent Culture
I WAS surprised to learn, when I agreed to speak to the National Association of Head Teachers today, that I was the first serving Prime Minister to address a teachers' union conference. It's a strange omission, considering how important teachers, and teaching, are to the well-being of our society.

My visit to the NAHT conference highlights the importance this Government places on education, and the fact that I am the first Prime Minister to make it a government's number one priority.

My mission is nothing less than to create a world-class education service. I want to close the worrying gap on standards and achievements with many of our neighbours - a gap which grew alarmingly under the last Government - so we match and then better their record.

David Blunkett and I have never pretended this can be achieved overnight. Parents and teachers understand this. They recognise that it is a long- term project, and that we can't reverse a century of under-performance and neglect of state education in a few years.

What parents and teachers could not forgive is if this Government made the mistake of believing that because it is a long-term goal, we have time to waste. We haven't. A generation of children are now being educated at state schools. They don't have the luxury of waiting for improvements.

So we started immediately identifying the reasons for under-performance and putting in place the policies, reforms and resources needed to tackle them. Schools are already seeing the benefits of the pounds 19bn extra we are investing in education over the next three years. It's money to recruit more teachers, build new classrooms, modernise school buildings and equipment. It is money already making a real difference to thousands of schools across the country. The number of infants in classes of more than 30 pupils will have been halved by the start of the new school year.

We have also given new emphasis to the basics in our schools. We have set tough targets to tackle the failures that have left scandalous numbers of our children unable to read, write or do maths effectively. It is a personal disaster for the children who are failed - a prime cause of social exclusion and disaffection. It is also an economic disaster, costing the country billions a year.

It is no surprise that the literacy hour, already introduced in virtually all our primary schools, has the overwhelming backing of parents and headteachers. In September, the daily numeracy lesson will be introduced, backed by pounds 55m in new investment in training and support so it gets an equally effective launch. In both cases we are using tried and tested teaching methods.

We have set out a strategy to improve standards for children in inner- city schools, have provided every school with at least pounds 4,000 to buy new school books and are providing, for instance, pounds 1bn to give children access to new technology over the next three years.

I am determined that the Government will give a strong lead - and we are doing so. But while we can put in place the right policies, the resources needed to make them work, and monitor progress, we can't deliver the improvements on the ground. It's the reason why we need strong leadership at a school level and dedicated, able and well-motivated teachers in the classroom.

You can't overestimate the importance today of a headteacher to a school and its pupils. That is why we are establishing a National College for School Leadership, to give school leaders the training and support that other professions have long taken for granted.

Strong, effective headteachers are the new leaders of the education system. Local education officials, of course, have a role in improving weak schools. But the rule David Blunkett and I want to see guide LEA officials is "intervention in inverse proportion to success".

We want to see as much money as possible handed down to schools. Good headteachers, not education authority officials, are best placed to run their schools and decide on its priorities. They need the money to do their job effectively. And as we have shown recently with Hackney and Islington, we will be as tough on failing LEAs as we are on failing schools.

In the end, I know that the success of what we are trying to do, and the effectiveness of the pounds 19bn extra we are investing, will succeed or fail on the efforts of individual teachers in every classroom in the country. It's why it is vital that we ensure that teachers are better supported, better respected, better motivated and yes, better rewarded.

We recognise that good teachers have reason to feel they are both under- valued and under-rewarded. We are going to put that right. This determination is the driving force behind our reforms of the teaching profession, backed by an extra pounds 1bn investment. They are intended to restore teaching to its rightful place as one of our country's most valued professions.

But this extra investment must be in return for modernised systems to improve teaching performance and recognise success. I can understand why there might be suspicion over this, but I honestly believe these suspicions are unfounded.

We are not talking here about crude payment by results, but a recognition that equal pay for unequal performance is in no one's interests. It does not enable us either to reward excellence properly, or to encourage improvements.

We also need to modernise a pay system that forces able and dedicated teachers out of the classroom against their own real wishes. Too many teachers, who want to stay in the classroom and whom we want to stay in the classroom, feel they have little choice but to take on more and more administration in order to improve their salaries and advance in their profession. That's bad news for the individuals themselves and, more importantly, bad news for the children at their school.

I know parents, teachers and Government are united on our goal. We all want a world-class education service for the country's children. But it is now up to us all to turn these hopes into actions, to ensure that we will the means as well as the goal. We will know we have succeeded when the results of our students match the fervour of our pronouncements.