Leading Article: A black mark for the teachers' conference

Click to follow
The Independent Online
DELEGATES at the National Union of Teachers' annual conference have done their executive no favours by voting for a ballot to boycott appraisal, and to threaten strikes against performance-related pay schemes. Politically, it straps an extra burden of sideline campaigning on a leadership that quite properly wants to focus its energy on the main issue ahead - a testing boycott, and the future of the national curriculum. It plays directly into the Government's hands, by enabling John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, to argue that teachers are bent on opposing every form of proposed performance measurement in schools.

But there are wider reasons for lamenting the NUT's decision. First, the appraisal of teachers' classroom performance, and the question of whether they should be paid more according to their performance, are quite distinct. Appraisal became a statutory obligation last September. Once every two years, all teachers must be observed at work by an appraiser (usually the head, or a senior colleague), followed by discussions and an agreed report.

The clearly stated primary aim of this exercise is professional development. In practice, good teachers find that appraisal is a boon. A formal interest is taken in their work. They benefit from praise, advice, support and stimulus. Given that the quality of teachers is the single most important factor in raising standards, and that appraisal is the best means of finding out what individual teachers need in the way of extra training and responsibility, it would be disastrous to abandon this valuable tool. No one is suggesting that teachers should be paid solely on the basis of their appraisal report.

Fortunately, it seems unlikely that the NUT's wider membership will support a boycott of appraisal. However, there is a danger of local action against performance-related pay schemes, which will start being piloted in schools this September. On that issue, teachers' instinctive distrust runs deeper. Their main argument is that teaching is, by its very nature, collegiate. The award of 'merit' money to some members of the staff room, they argue, will divide colleagues who need to co-operate closely.

Beneath these sentiments lies the undying conviction among many teachers that any hint of competitiveness is anathema to the educational world. But nowadays nearly everyone works in teams. Those teams are no less co-operative if their members' salaries vary according to performance and ability.

Performance-related pay will help governing bodies retain excellent staff in the classroom. Indeed, it is particularly important, during a period of inevitable and necessary public sector pay restraint, for employers to find ways of rewarding those staff who show initiative, enterprise and enthusiasm - and get results. Teachers are no different: they, like anyone else, will find that an extra point or two on their pay scale is a warming form of applause, even if it does not amount to much more cash. Good teachers have nothing to fear from performance-related pay; on the contrary, they have much to gain.