WHY ASK?

I have been a lawyer and a teacher, a wage slave, and an employer. I went through school and I had kids at school, and I was Chair of Governors of a school. I even served on the Education Special Needs subcommittee of my local Council.

Almost every professional is paid on the merit of some description. For lawyers and accountants, our pay is usually related to how much we earn for our employer. If we are in public service we are placed in pay bands, but moving up a band is usually only possible if you are good at what you do. It usually also involves taking on extra responsibilities. Often there is a performance bar or bars.

With teachers, it is much more difficult to measure “merit”. With a tough class, getting to the end of Friday afternoon without significant disruption is good teaching. With a good class, you should be expected to achieve excellence even on Friday afternoon. There are schools with “good” kids that are not delivering. There are schools combatting poverty, gang culture, linguistic problems, and inadequate parenting which perform miracles to achieve “average” results from disturbed and distressed children.

WHY PAY ON MERIT?

If a school has easy kids and is not demanding of the children or of the teachers, everyone just costs it. Life is pleasant. The fact that children are not receiving the education they should receive is often not recognized. The parents may be happy their child is in a “good” school. The child is probably happy to achieve “success” without much effort. And the teachers do not have to work hard. The disgrace and betrayal are outrageous, but nobody cares. If a teacher or parent becomes a “troublemaker” they are eased out. In most merit pay scenarios, the Head and the senior teachers all receive pay rises because the results from the school are above average. It seems to me that the remedy for this situation is not merit pay, but a new headteacher who has standards and will enforce them.

Some local authorities operate a “value-added” measure, where the measurement is not the objective results but the rate of improvement. The children are measured in national or authority-wide tests, marked independently rather than by teachers who know the children. If the intake of 11-year-olds -average age 11 years 6 months – has a reading age on average of 11.6, then taking them to 14.6 in three years is nothing special. But if they came in at 10.8 and go out at 14.5, that is a real achievement. The results on the conventional league table still favor the underachieving school,

Schools have various techniques for massaging figures, One is to take the average and above-average to improve them significantly, leaving the stragglers to straggle. Working with struggling children in small groups is labor-intensive and will not produce “Excellent” results, so instead put the same effort into the kids who do not need it.

One school which received over 60% of children from households where the mother tongue was not English was unhappy because the children were expected to achieve a faster rate of progression in all subjects. So they worked on the parents to produce figures a year later that only 15% of the same cohort were from non-English speaking families, reducing the expectations. This was blown open when the Government inspectors queried the change in figures.

How Do We Measure Success?

If a child of eight is happy and confident at school, has reasonable English and Maths for their age, has good social skills, and a good attitude to school, teaching that child is a pleasure. You are developing and drawing out the child, building upon the good work done in kindergarten, nursery, reception, and Early Years. I have never heard of a merit scheme that gives enough credit to those first few years at school.
No one says “Mrs. Hoskins, little Billy who you worked so hard within the Reception class has just earned a First Class degree at Oxford –The teachers for whom Billy was a breeze may well receive merit payments, and I do not say they do not deserve them. But Mrs. Hoskins, the one truly important teacher in his life, gets no recognition. If we are to have a merit scheme that excludes Mrs. Hoskins, we are not running a merit scheme worthy of the name.

Teachers are human, and we could all do with more pay and the prestige of being recognized as a “Merit” teacher. In a Merit scheme, teachers are likely to concentrate on whatever the powers that be see as “Merit”. If recognizing potentially abused children is part of the scheme, almost every abused child will be spotted. And if that is not part of the scheme, fewer will be found, and later in their lives when more damage has been done.

In England at the beginning of the 20th Century, we had merit payments for teachers. Astonishingly the teachers “taught to the examination” and did not attempt to develop social skills, the wider child, or any special skills the child might have. So we abandoned merit payments.