Performance pay-be careful what you wish for


From September 2013, the set “spine points” on teachers main pay scale are to be scrapped, with schools free to set teachers’ pay anywhere between minimum and maximum levels depending on performance.

While academies are already free to deviate from national pay structures, (very few have, to date) the plans drawn up by the STRB – and accepted in full by the Department for Education – will now give other schools greater power to link teachers’ pay to performance.

It is clear that the issue of performance related   pay is high on this governments agenda.  Ministers are trying to raise the quality of teaching to compare with the best in the world. The OECD (2009) concluded that “the effective monitoring and evaluation of teaching is central to the continuous improvement of the effectiveness of  teaching in a school”. It is less clear that this issue  is high on teachers and governors agendas.

The last Labour government introduced a PRP system in the late 1990’s and just about every teacher who was eligible met the criteria for a pay rise ,(96%) so it didn’t really work . In short, it failed effectively to link extra rewards to higher performance. Heads and governors dont much like dealing with this sensitive issue  head on as inevitably it causes some conflicts and ill feeling within staff rooms, which may go some way to explaining why the last system failed.

Central to PRP or ‘merit ‘pay is the ability to accurately measure and evaluate individual teachers performance. The system you develop should be fair, efficient and not have a large bureaucracy attached to it. And that is why,frankly, it is problematic.

The three most common ways to evaluate teacher effectiveness, according to research, are  gains in test scores, classroom observations and pupil surveys. Each method though has its known weaknesses. Teacher observation apparently   is the least predictive method of assessing teacher effectiveness. Nonetheless, despite this, those  involved with teacher evaluation say that each element   has its place within a  comprehensive and fair  teacher evaluation system. The key they claim  is to get the right balance between these different elements, which is easier said than done.

Of these elements, gains in pupil test scores are seen by most as the best available metric to measure teacher performance. However, as they are finding in the USA, it doesn’t come without its problems. (around forty states have introduced some form of merit pay, incentivised to do so  by the Federal government) .  Although schools can have a substantial impact on performance,  student test scores can  also increase, decrease or remain flat for reasons that have little or nothing to do with schools. Measurement errors can occur, while  parental education levels, family’s economic circumstances,  and parental involvement, can also play a role. There is self-evidently a strong incentive for playing the numbers to look successful on “quality” measures since the numbers carry substantial consequences for the teacher. This is a very high stakes game. Working out how to look good, through test results, becomes an end in itself, with the numbers becoming  more important than the primary task of teaching students. Given that many politicians now worry about teachers being pre-occupied with teaching to the test,  and children’s education suffering as a consequence, introducing test scores as  the primary metric to evaluate teachers is going to encourage more (indeed all) teachers to teach to the test ,not less.

It would seem that Value-added or progress measures, rather than absolute test or exam results, should be the primary data used in evaluating performance, certainly this is what many experts recommend. But, and its quite a big but,  measuring value added is itself  not free from controversy and there are different models available, with their own strengths and weaknesses, and  with no clear consensus identifiable.

There are ways, though, of using pay to encourage groups of teachers to work better together to improve outcomes. And, if one is honest about this issue, it sticks in the craw that outstanding teachers are not rewarded as they should be, while poor teachers can stay in the profession for life having a  hugely negative effect on students life opportunities, and education outcomes, while acting as a drag on improving the system  more generally (quite apart from irritating their better performing peers).

To recap-to make progress in this area you need to develop a system that is fair, balanced, transparent and not too bureaucratic. They are still struggling with this challenge in the States, where they are well ahead of us in both thinking and practice on this issue.

One recent study  titled ‘The Use and Misuse of Teacher Appraisal’ (Laura Figazzolo- Education International Research Institute Consultant- January 2013) found: ‘ The evidence is that many dimensions need to be taken into account when evaluating teachers.  Student achievements are but one dimension – especially when these are standardized tests. Where  teacher appraisal is based on professional standards, classroom observations, curriculum  development, and a wide range of associated factors which are associated with teaching and teacher  perspectives, comprehensive methods seem to be able to provide more valuable information. When  teacher appraisal arrangements and policies are conceived with the participation of teachers and  their unions, comprehensive methods seem to be able to gain teachers’ trust and provide valuable  information. As such, they are gaining growing recognition in the debate on teacher appraisal’

It is  frustratingly  true that schools here  seeking expert advice and guidance on this  issue will be confronted with much  conflicting evidence and the issue is neither simple nor straightforward..



  1. This is a really helpful analysis of just how complicated the issues are Patrick. I’d add a couple of thoughts.

    Firstly, I think it’s easy to underestimate how many teachers choose the profession because they regard it is as a positive alternative to commerce. They prefer a working environment which doesn’t measure their performance closely, or link it tightly to remuneration. In a 2004 publication, “The Work of Advanced Skills Teachers” commissioned by CfBT, the researchers used a questionnaire in which they asked Advanced Skills Teachers to rank statements about knowledge, skills and understanding. Respondents were asked to rank a list of types of knowledge according to how important they felt they were in their work. The hightest ranking by far was “Excellent knowledge of your specialist subject or area” which gained a 72% response. The lowest ranking statement at 1% was, “Being able to identify and challenge under-performance in others.” Far from being the collaborative, collegiate, chummy school-improvement-angels ASTs were conceived of as being, they actually saw themselves as primarily subject experts who had no business trying to improve colleagues’ performance.

    Secondly, any attempt to introduce performance related pay linked, however slightly, to pupils’ performance or results, teaches children the wrong lesson. Whether you succeed or fail isn’t down to you: it’s down to your teachers. In sport we call it blaming the ref and regard the competitors who do it with appropriate contempt.

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