Have super-teachers really taken off?

Paying the best teachers more to stay in the classroom rather than seek promotion is, in principle, a good idea. But the Government's super-teacher scheme was last week described as a failure; few have signed up and it is too bureaucratic. So, how come it is working in some schools, asks Stephen McCormack
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Last week, the Government's cherished £33m initiative for super teachers - introduced in a blaze of publicity by the then Education Secretary David Blunkett - was branded a failure. The scheme, which aims to keep the best teachers in the classroom by paying them up to £47,000, should be dumped because it is so bureaucratic and take-up is so low, according to John Howson, an expert on teacher supply and visiting professor of education at Oxford Brookes University.

"To say it's gone off half-cock would be a kind way of describing it," Professor Howson told MPs on the education select committee. "The way these teachers are assessed, by outsiders, and the fact that they have to spend one-fifth of their time outside their school is far too bureaucratic.'

When New Labour launched the policy for Advanced Skills Teachers in 1998, their target was to appoint 10,000 of them. But, five years on, there are still only 3,000 in position across England and Wales, and one education authority, Surrey, has a paltry 10 super teachers out of a workforce of more than 5,000. Professor Howson's views are echoed by other educationalists. Professor Alan Smithers, the director of Liverpool University's Centre for Education and Employment Research, is not surprised so few have been appointed. "It doesn't fit in to the structure of staffing in schools," he says. "It hasn't been thought through."

David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers agrees. "I can't, frankly, see any chance of it having the success that the Government hoped it would," he says. Hank Roberts, a teacher in Brent and an executive member of the National Union of Teachers and Association of Teachers and Lecturers, believes there is a more sinister explanation for the policy. "It's part of the overall aim of reducing the numbers of teachers overall by creating a small elite of super teachers and increasing numbers of assistants," he argues. "The profession as a whole does not see it as the way forward."

This criticism should come as little surprise to ministers, given the scorn that rang out when David Blunkett ushered in the scheme. Unions bristled with hostility at the suggestion that a small number of teachers be singled out for special status and higher pay. What to the Government was a radical and innovative policy was to most in the teaching profession a divisive and unjust measure: elitism at its worst.

When the first high-flying teacher, Mandy Morgan, a North London design and technology teacher was appointed as the first super teacher, the NUT looked on with a scowl, and talked dismissively of "arbitrary rewards for the few in exchange for demoralising the many." The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers said it was "bound to cause resentment in staffrooms."

The unions' principal concern now is about the pay of Advanced Skilled Teachers compared with regular teachers. "It is wrong to have a separate pay scale, which complicates an already over-complicated pay structure," says John Dunford, the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association. "What we would do is bring them into a single scale together with experienced teachers who pass the pay threshold."

According to John Bangs, the head of education at the National Union of Teachers, the super teacher scheme symbolises the "disjointed and piecemeal" way in which the Government rewards good classroom teachers. But the super teachers appointed around the country do not join in all this criticism. In the small number of schools that have appointed Advanced Skills Teachers, the predicted friction in staffrooms is absent and there are abundant signs of benefits to staff and pupils.

Take Jennifer Kennedy, who has been teaching geography for 30 years, the last 13 at Vyne Community School in Basingstoke. She still oozes enthusiasm for teaching and is delighted with her new role as an Advanced Skills Teacher, having grabbed the chance when it was offered, so that she could stay in teaching and have the opportunity to help others. "It's open to anyone to be an Advanced Skills Teacher," she says. "I think because I have been in this school for a long time and people respect what I do, they felt it was a normal progression for me. It has not been divisive at all."

The principle behind the policy is, unarguably, sound. Those teachers who are exceptionally good at helping children to learn should spend most of their time inside the classroom teaching. But they should also be given an opportunity - 20 per cent of their time - to pass on their special classroom skills to colleagues in their own and, crucially, in other schools.

They should not spend their time organising timetables, co-ordinating schemes of work, or managing IT within a department. Until Advanced Skills Teachers came along, acquiring management responsibilities, and the extra pay that went with it, was invariably synonymous with doing less actual teaching.

That traditional route up the career ladder was exactly what would have confronted Gareth Moores, a science teacher at Vyne School couple of years ago, if the super teachers hadn't been invented. "I wasn't ready to leave the classroom," he says. "I wanted to continue developing my own teaching and explore other areas that would maybe benefit others."

The 20 per cent of time which Mr Moores spends outside the school goes on training and bringing on new teachers and on a county-wide scheme to research new methods of science teaching and disseminate that around Hampshire. Jennifer Kennedy's outreach time is devoted to running her own website (www.geovyne.co.uk) This helps pupils and parents at her school with the geography, but also, crucially, enables other geography teachers from far and wide to benefit from her experience.

For Judith Edge, head of Vyne School, the experience with Advanced Skills Teachers has been a win-win situation. She's kept her best classroom practitioners, and, in so doing, acquired in-house training and support for the rest of her staff. She also admits that offering a good teacher the super teacher role, with the extra pay that goes with it, is a way of retaining talent. "If we had not identified these two as Advanced Skills Teachers, the other staff would have done so for us," she says. "Any school has to feel that the whole staff will accept the appointments.'

Delia Smith, head teacher at St Angela's Ursuline Convent School in the London Borough of Newham, where there are four super teachers, underlines the importance of identifying the right people for the role. She says: "While a good teacher is a good teacher, regardless of their subject area, an Advanced Skills Teacher has to have excellent interpersonal skills to gain the trust of adults and inspire them to accept what they are saying without creating hostility. That's not easy. It's not about pontification. You've got to get down to the nitty, gritty, hands-on stuff with other teachers."

One of the reasons for the low take-up may be connected to the requirement that Advanced Skilled Teachers have to relinquish all management tasks, such as being head of department. But on ringing education authorities, I found numerous examples where this had not happened. People had taken on the role of super teacher but were still head of department. That may deter others from coming forward. What is the point of taking on the new position if you can't give up the old one?

There are significant regional variations. Lincolnshire, one county that has enthusiastically embraced the scheme, has 86 Advanced Skilled Teachers, nearly two per cent of the workforce. By contrast, Surrey has virtually ignored it, distributing the money earmarked for the scheme around its schools with no stipulation as to what it should be spent on. "We in Surrey are not short of mechanisms to spread good practice," says a spokesman.

So, the scheme is being treated with a mixture of apathy and scorn, but is clearly working in schools that have signed up to it. It may survive in some form because most teachers' unions accept the principle of identifying and rewarding the best classroom practitioners and enabling them to pass on their skills.


Introduced: 1998

Who are they? Teachers who are considered to be excellent. They receive a boost to their salary as well as new duties.

Aim: To keep the best teachers working in the classroom.

Government target: 10,000.

Appointed so far: 3,000.

Pay scale: £29,757 to £47,469 (more for those in London).

Funding: £33m a year from the Department for Education and Skills through local education authorities.

Working week: 80 per cent to be spent on own classes, 20 per cent on helping other teachers.