Changing teachers pay and conditions matters


High on the agenda of all political parties is the issue of social mobility.

A report on Equality  out  in late January and previous ones on Social Mobility (Milburn et al) have emphasized how unequal our society is. In a sense Equality per se, though important is less important than social mobility. And Politicians  track record of trying to engineer equality   is hardly   impressive, and  quite offten has unintended consequences.  We will always live in an unequal society, even despite Harriet Harman’s best efforts .Cuba is a society much more equal than ours, as Antonia Senior pointed out in the Times last week. But would we want to live there? Equality in mediocrity may have its attractions, but I can’t think of any, just now.

The differences between rich and poor matters less if everyone including the poorest are getting richer so that a rising tide carries everyone with it.  But what matters most is improving social mobility.  That is giving individuals greater opportunities and chances to improve their lives and to break out of the cycle of disadvantage.  A main driver of social mobility is  a  good education.

It is an ever more important influence on people’s lives and their chances of success.  So, it follows, that what we do in our schools is very important in the drive to improve social mobility. The 30,000 pupils who leave school every year with no qualifications are unlikely to become socially mobile. Those with less than five good GCSEs will also be pushed to move upwards. It makes sense, of course, to target the most disadvantaged .We know that although there have been some improvements in disadvantaged pupils attainment in schools, improvements over the last ten years have been very modest.

There is alarming evidence too, to suggest that pupils from deprived backgrounds may be less likely to experience good quality teaching.

Sammons et al. (2006), in an analysis of teaching practice in 125 year 5 classes, found that the quality of teaching tended to be poorer in schools with higher levels of pupils eligible for FSM .Differences were apparent in areas such as basic skills development, depth of subject knowledge, social support for learning, pupil engagement and classroom routines. The Cabinet Office in 2008 cited evidence that teachers in schools with more than 20 per cent. FSM eligibility were more likely to be rated worse in their teaching, and less likely to have come from an outstanding teacher training institution.

The role of teachers and good teaching is important .Schools are as good as their teachers. As Professor Alison Wolf has highlighted in the Sunday Times this week if disadvantaged children are to do better, they need not whiteboards or laptops or new classrooms, but good teaching. Too often disadvantaged pupils don’t have access to the best teachers.

Wolf pointed that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are fans of a “pupil premium”, which means extra money follows disadvantaged children to whichever school they attend. That is great, provided the money can be spent well on good teaching. But can it?

Wolf thinks not. Under current arrangements, all but a tiny number of our state schools are tied into national pay scales and rigid conditions covering teachers’ hours and activities. So even if they get extra funds, schools with many disadvantaged pupils can’t offer anything special or different to teachers. There can be no higher salaries, no differences in working conditions.

In other words, Wolf claims, despite the extra money, these schools won’t be able to hire better teachers. Instead, we will be stuck with the status quo. That means that schools where teaching is easier, the pupils less demanding and the conditions less stressful attract a better teaching staff. Wolf says that unless we can change the pay regime, what the pupil premium offers is another expensive reform on course for disappointing failure.

A 2008 report from the think tank  Policy Exchange ‘More Good Teachers’ had recommended that  schools in disadvantaged areas need  extra money to pay their teachers more. The introduction of the “pupil premium”, attaching more money to pupils from poorer areas than those from better-off areas, would provide this support. There should also, the report said, be a fast-track route to the advanced skills teacher status pay scale so that good classroom teachers don’t feel they have to move into leadership in order to access higher salaries faster. Policy Exchange in this and subsequent reports championed greater flexibility over teachers pay and conditions  as well as over  pensions, not just to attract good graduates into the profession  but to help retain the best and  to make it easier to move in and out of the profession. It transpires that some teachers who want to leave the profession don’t because of their inflexible pension arrangements.

One of the ideas behind free schools currently being promoted by the New Schools Network and Tories is that Heads and Governors should have more powers and greater flexibility over the pay and conditions of their staff, like Charter schools have in the States. Reforms to the profession are long overdue but the elephant in the room is the unions. Will they seize this opportunity to bring much needed changes or revert to type? The good news is that not all unions nowadays think alike and all are, it seems, keen to raise the status of the profession. At the very least a mature debate on this issue is long overdue.


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