Beware the consequences of Performance Related Pay for teachers


July 8, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith

I wonder if the person at the Department of Education who came up with using performance related pay to motivate teachers has ever actually been one?

I remember the day I realised how much I would love being a teacher. In my first year of teaching (in which I must say I taught some terrible lessons in amongst some good ones) I had introduced a lesson on how to produce a cashflow statement for a business and Linda (not her real name) put up her hand and said “Sir, seriously, I am in Year 13 and you guys have been trying to teach me how to do this since a Year 10 and I can’t do it. You might as well give up now.” I asked Linda to have a go at the activity we were doing just to see if it would work. An hour later there was a shriek from the back of the class. It was Linda. “Oh my God, I’ve done it. It all balances, oh my god, I’m gonna be an accountant!” The smile on Linda’s and the joy in her voice were priceless, and if I didn’t know before, I knew as I almost skipped my way home that evening that I loved teaching and I might actually be able to do it well.

My biggest concern about the Department of Education is that, regardless of their motivations, it is led by people who have never taught, will never teach, and have little to no understanding of what it takes and what it means to be a teacher. Nowhere is this more apparent than in with the concept of ‘performance related pay’ (PRP). This week’s teachers’ strike will be presented by the government and this much of the media as being about pay and pensions, but teachers are also protesting (rightly in my view) about PRP, for a number of reasons.

The idea of performance related pay seems perfectly sane. You want to encourage teachers to ‘perform better’. You want there to be some kind of tangible consequence if they ‘perform worse’. Why not link their performance to financial reward? Surely that will produce better outcomes for students? Anyone who argues with that must be concerned about their own performance right? Secondly, at the moment there is an incremental pay scale, particularly for the first six years of teaching, which a teacher moves up every year, however well or badly they have taught. This means you could teach fabulously and get the same pay as a colleague who hasn’t bothered much but has hung onto their job for the first six years. There is then a process called ‘threshold’ which a teacher can go through to a higher pay scale which is about a £5,000 jump up and is supposed to be applied for and judged on merit, but in practice teachers have rarely been denied that jump. The idea of performance related pay is apparently to give the high performing teacher a reward. So if you are performing well there is nothing to worry about.

But I fear that PRP will produce behaviour as an unintended consequence that could destroy the collegiate ethos of many school staff rooms, destroy the working relationship between teaching staff and management, and possibly destroy the life chances of tenge pupils who need their teachers the most.

The starting point for this is that I don’t know a single teacher who went into teaching for the money. If they did that then they can accept a lifetime of disappointment as whilst teaching pay can be good it will not set you up for a lifetime of luxury. Most teachers are there as a vocation. I was paid far more than I am now when I was a management consultant for ten years but whilst I worked for massive multinational firms the ‘clients’ I have now are infinitely more valuable. You cannot put a price on seeing a pupil like Linda (see above) have a ‘lightbulb’ moment. You can’t put a price on seeing a pupil find out their results are good enough to get into university. You can’t put a price on seeing a pupil walking around smiling with their friends a week after they had been extremely upset about something and you had played a part in helping them. A teacher’s day is filled with a few joyous moments and also a few moments of intense frustration but every day is different and that’s the joy of this profession.

But teachers are humans. Whilst they are not motivated by money, if you threaten them with taking some away if they don’t do certain things they will, like most other humans, do those things….likely at the expense of many other things they could and should be doing to help their pupils.

How do you measure how a teacher performs? Observation? Exam results? Hours put in? The process involves specific, measurable and realistic targets.

The trouble with observation is that judgements are involved, and unless you as the observer are able to back up those judgements in a measurable way the process will be fraught with tension and constantly challenged by teachers understandably not happy that someone’s judgement is deciding how much food they can put on their kids’ table. Also, plenty of teachers are capable of ‘turning it on’ for an observation, which makes it an ineffective way of judging them.

In terms of hours put in, that may seem sensible, but all it will inculcate is a sense of ‘presenteeism’, regardless of anything useful actually being achieved. Also, are we really going to have a system of pay in teaching that penalises those with children to care for, or a sick partner? I have known many teachers who may not always be at school every hour of the day but whose pupils, colleagues and exam results speak extremely highly of them.

So let’s turn to exam results. This may seem a no-brainer to people who haven’t taught, and probably would have done to me when I wasn’t in teaching. But if you connect pay to student outcomes like that you are storing up a world of trouble.

First of all, a rational teacher will literally only teach to the exam, not pausing to inculcate a love of the subject or for the kind of enriching discussions that can happen around a topic in class. It will be exam, exam, exam. Also, anything that doesn’t help them achieve the target they have been set might be ignored. For instance, I often get emails from pupils who have left the school asking for references or for my advice on something. I think that is an important part of my job, particularly because of the link it maintains between the school and our alumni. But will I do that at the risk of work that would raise my ‘pay’? I would I like to think I would, but I am only human, and we are rational beings affected by incentives.

Secondly, even with the best students it really is a case of ‘you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink’. What if a teacher delivers a course magnificently but a pupil stays up playing Xbox until 6am the night before the exam, or gets ill, or their parents have a massive argument the night before or they split up with their boy/girlfriend that week? If my pay was being decided by exam results I would want to have the kids in my class in quarantine for at least the week before the exam so I can make sure they do all the right things beforehand. Impossible? Well then don’t link my pay with their performance.

Thirdly, and most importantly, if you link pay to student performance in this way the pupils most likely to pull off the results you have prepared them for are pupils from secure, solid, supportive backgrounds. These are more likely to be found in private schools or in schools with a higher intake of students with those backgrounds. But we need teachers to be willing to teach in schools that have intakes of challenging students from difficult backgrounds. You can make a massive difference to someone’s life there, but you may not get the exam results your efforts deserve as there is so much you cannot control. Any policy that encourages teachers to only teach the ‘easier’ pupils will hurt those pupils that need teachers the most, and that, I hope, is not the Department of Education’s intention.

That’s just how it’s measured, but there’s more. For performance related pay to work, there has to be some sort of comparison involved. It is unlikely that it will be possible to say that all the teachers in a school deserve the highest pay possible as they are all performing above expectations. If a school is in the LEA maintained sector they are at the moment forced to introduce PRP in September but they are not being given any extra money to do this. So it is a zero sum game. This means if I am given £1000 extra in my pay packet someone else is getting £1000 less. A comparison is having to be made. This might be between teachers in a department, it might be between departments, or all teachers in a school…whatever it is there are potential implications.

1 Within a department – let me explain how we work in the economics department at my school. When we teach something we share resources. If a useful article is published we send it around. If someone teaches a difficult concept well (in that the pupils ‘got it’) they will share the technique or resource that helped them do that. If someone is away we cover for each other. We work together in everything. If you compare teachers within departments for PRP purposes you would destroy that in an instant. Furthermore, in subjects where there is setting there is likely to be an almighty bunfight over what set you get as it could make a difference to your pay. If you set department colleagues against each other, pupils will lose out.

2 Between departments – the result that a department gets from the pupils it teaches depends on many things. The quality of the teaching is one thing, but it also depends on the academic ability of the students it manages to recruit to its subject and the budget it gets given by senior management. If departments are compared to each other for pay purposes then departments will compete for pupils in an extremely unseemly manner. Also, they would compete for budgets and resources against each other. Most importantly is that there would be less incentive for departments to share good practice with each other. There would be less incentive for us to talk about the best ways to support pupils, in fact there would be less incentive for us to talk to each other at all. Again, pupils will lose out.

3 Across the whole school – apart from discouraging the sharing of good practice, a further issue would arise if, say, you decide only to award the highest band of performance pay to the top 20% of teachers. Let’s say my school has a staff of 100 amazing teachers. I could do a fantastic job yet find myself the 21st best teacher in the school and miss out. Yet across the country I could be in the top 5% of teachers. How disillusioning would that be? Wouldn’t I then go out in search of a school full of mediocre teachers so I could have a better chance of getting that bonus? Isn’t that a ‘race to the bottom’?

The government has argued that performance related pay will motivate struggling teachers. Really? If you are working hard but having a tough time, for whatever reason (and there could be personal issues, or you have a particularly difficult class) do you really think that £500 will make a difference? If it would then you shouldn’t be a teacher.

What teachers do is extremely valuable, but you cannot put a price on many of the interactions we have with young people. Putting a price on it will actually hurt those pupils. Before I was a teacher, I wouldn’t have understood why that is. Which is why I wonder whether those who came up with this policy have ever been one.

3 thoughts on “Beware the consequences of Performance Related Pay for teachers

  1. abner325 says:

    Short answer…doubt it Harry! I am a teacher in New Zealand. Our ‘department of education’ is the Ministry of Education (a government department). We are currently undergoing the biggest shift in our education system in 25 years, with increasing attempts by the government to slip performance pay into our contract.
    It is interesting that at a time when many education systems based on the “GERM” are doing much more poorly than NZ and are beginning to question the effectiveness of this, that the NZ government is trying to implement it here.


  2. Spot on Paul – l hope lots of people read and share this.


  3. So the Sky journalist Jason Farrell put some of my comments to the Department of Education – – and the most interesting response was that to the third comment, in which I pointed out that pitting teacher against teacher, as would be needed if you are to identify higher performers without a higher pay pot, would make it less likely that teachers would collaborate, which in turn would lower teaching standard…their response was “Evidence shows that improving the quality of teaching is essential to raising standards in schools.” ……….my point was that PRP would lower teaching standards. This response, which I imagine was cut and paste from the briefing sheet the press officer had, suggests that they haven’t thought about this. They need to


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