Leading Article: You can't afford to pay peanuts, Mr Blunkett

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Britain is not obsessed by money, but material rewards are important enough in our society for this proposition to be true: the higher the general level of teachers' pay, the higher the quality of entrants to this vital profession. The better the teachers, the better (economically, socially, culturally) Britain will be. Of course money guarantees nothing. A lot of lawyers and doctors are very well paid, but that does not in itself say much about public health or justice. Yet if education is to get its share of the top A-level students, if those dreadful recent figures for the qualifications of entrants to undergraduate education degrees are to be improved, more money has to be part of the solution.

The establishment of a General Teaching Council and associated efforts to make teaching more like the established professions of law and medicine are welcome; likewise the sentiment behind that otherwise silly proposal to give teachers and heads a bigger share of the spoils of the honours system. Raising the status of teaching is a noble end. But David Blunkett and his fellow ministers are surely under no illusion that their ambitions for schools, especially their tight targets for numeracy and literacy at age 11, entail improvements in the quality of teachers that will have to be bought with big money.

Mr Blunkett has his chance today when he publishes the Government's letter of guidance to the teachers' pay review body. In an ideal world what he would say is that in the financial settlement for 1998-99 money will be provided in sufficient quantity. There will be millions, in other words, to raise starting salaries - because pounds 16,000 is too little to tempt good young men and women into city schools. There will be hundreds of millions to raise finishing salaries - because good teachers have to be kept in the classroom as long as they can wield a pencil. It must be possible to keep the best teachers in the classroom, without forcing them out into management in order to earn decent money. Good teachers reach the top of the main teachers' pay scale as young as 27, and that has to be absurd.

Mr Blunkett ought also to tell the review body something the teacher unions would find very hard to swallow, but surely is a necessary part of the reformation of this profession and our schools. He should say that once general levels of reward have been lifted, there ought never again to be a "general pay settlement" giving all teachers a rise indiscriminately; that in future professional rewards should be inseparably linked with performance.

In the real world, Mr Blunkett will only be able to accomplish some of this. He has to contend with the complexity of schools finance, which New Labour - so far - has done nothing to simplify. A notional sum for schools, which itself contains a notional sum to meet a hypothetical teachers' pay settlement, enters the global amount for 1998-99 allocated local authorities in their block grant in the autumn. They may choose to spend the official proportion of their grant on schools, they may choose even to augment it. But those decisions are up to them just as heads and governors control the detail of which teacher gets what. What all this means is that David Blunkett cannot directly effect - or lubricate - changes that ensure teachers get paid for work out of hours, such as homework and holiday clubs. Perhaps the local authorities and the heads will all sing from his song sheet, but there is no guarantee of harmony. In arguing with his Cabinet colleagues for more money Mr Blunkett's case is necessarily weakened because he cannot assure them that his aims will be achieved.

Meanwhile the Government will ask the pay review body to bear all kinds of considerations in mind. The most important of these is the creation of a new grade - an "advanced skills" or "super" teacher. This, in principle, is exactly what is wanted: a way of paying good teachers to remain in the classroom. There is a lot of work to be done in fleshing it out, questions yet to be answered about how such pedagogical heroines and heroes are to be identified. In most schools, however, the evidence of good or bad performance is clear-cut enough to convince even the most blinkered union rep.

The quid pro quo has to be a faster track towards the removal from the schools of teachers who cannot control their charges or deliver on the attainment front. As even Chris Woodhead seems recently to have recognised, managing educational improvement in England and Wales is a subtle blend of sticks and carrots. A lot of cudgelling is needed, whether or not his figure of 15,000 "bad teachers" is precisely right. But so is praise, and pay for a job subjected - now, at last - to close and critical inspection of a kind many other professionals and the occupants of a host of other less demanding jobs manage to avoid.

So it is back to money. According to the official calculations behind the pounds 2.3bn extra for education announced in Gordon Brown's July budget, around pounds 1bn ought to be available to local authorities for improving standards. How much of this will be reserved for pay, in addition to the notional two-and-a-bit per cent that will be entered into support grant calculations? It does not look as if the total sum available for the refreshment of teacher pay prospects and re-structuring the grading system is going to be adequate. The Government wants to effect a revolution in state education, and that cannot come cheap. For David Blunkett there is going to be no cut-price route to success.