Performance Related Pay and the Rise of Authoritarianism in Schools

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Has performance related pay already become yet another mechanism to control schools and teachers? Graham Birrell asks whether the negative consequences of PRP will greatly outweigh the argued benefits.

clock and coins on a seesawWe are fast approaching the time of year when teachers across the country will be learning whether or not they get an incremental pay rise. During the final term of last year I heard numerous stories from highly stressed teachers, all worried about not receiving this owing to anxiety over whether their pupils’ test scores were going to hit designated targets. To put it mildly, these teachers didn’t seem fans of the new performance related pay system and didn’t agree with Michael Gove’s view that:

“Linking teachers’ pay to performance will make teaching a more attractive career and a more rewarding job. It will give schools greater flexibility to respond to specific conditions and reward their best teachers. It is vital that teachers can be paid more without having to leave the classroom”

So it was something of a surprise to find a poll published in the same term by the Sutton Trust suggesting 53% of teachers supported using pupil results to set their pay. That figure can be put in some perspective by the fact that the Sutton Trust had previously written a report extolling their use, stating that ‘gains in pupil test scores are the best available metric to measure teacher performance’; nevertheless, it still gives an indication that many in the profession have bought into the ‘you’ll get paid more’ argument.

But are these teachers acquiescing in a system, of which PRP forms an important part, which is increasingly about authoritarianism and compliance? Much has been written about the effect high-stakes testing has had on pupils, but what of its effect on teachers?

Yong Zhao, a highly respected Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, has called high-stakes testing ‘America’s Faustian bargain, made with the devil of authoritarianism.’ And that under authoritarianism’s guise ‘disrespect of teachers as professional colleagues and intrusion into their professional autonomy are praised as characteristics of no-nonsense, tough leadership with high expectations.’

Evidence of this ‘tough leadership’ and ‘high expectations’ is also being played out in schools across England and Wales. Reports suggest that workplace bullying is reaching ‘epidemic’ levels and teachers are experiencing stringent lesson observations and ‘data scrutinies’ to judge whether they are deemed worthy of an increment increase. I regularly hear stories of teachers being observed monthly or more, where the levels of each pupil must be provided in advance – naturally the trajectory must be upwards or watch out for that pay rise.

As the Sutton Trust poll found however, some teachers will naturally be in favour of PRP as they believe they will ‘win’ – their competence will be recognised, while the less-effective, less-hard working colleague down the corridor will finally be found out. PRP, like many neoliberal policies appeals to humanity’s basest instincts, that competition and the lure of lucre will win out and propel people to ever greater achievement.

The only problem with this is that study after study has suggested it won’t work. Through analysis of seminal research in the area, Daniel Pink, in his 2009 book ‘Drive’, convincingly argued that PRP only works in low level, single action roles, e.g. ‘I’ll pay you more if you bang more nails in’; but for any role that involves a higher degree of cognitive thinking, literature reviews suggest ‘tangible rewards tend to have a substantially negative effect on intrinsic motivation’ and performance is consequently damaged. Even the government’s favourite education ‘research’ organisation, the OECD, have found that PRP has a damaging effect in countries where teachers are already relatively well rewarded.

I don’t think this will surprise too many teachers, for whom Jessie J could well have been talking about when she sang ‘it’s not about the money, money’: teachers aren’t interested in being paid huge sums, they’re interested in being paid fairly, and when studies suggests error rates of 35% when measuring teacher effectiveness based on test scores, it’s not surprising that many feel the system promotes inequity and injustice.

PRP of course has nothing to do with paying teachers more, but instead is about tying them to a vision of education that has a single, laser-like focus: ever rising test scores. As the noose of floor targets is placed ever tightly around Head Teacher’s necks, PRP gives them an extra weapon to use on ‘poorly performing’ teachers and impose ever stringent authoritarian working conditions. In response, teachers find themselves offering a bland educational diet, based on teaching to the test and quick hits over long-term nourishment. This isn’t to blame Head Teachers or teachers – to resist the authoritarian urge or its consequences takes bravery and significant confidence.

Sadly, we’ve been here before. Although a much blunter tool than PRP is supposed to be, the 1862 Revised Code paid schools on the basis of tests in the 3Rs (sound familiar?) and had profoundly damaging effects on teachers and teaching: Michael Gove’s favourite Victorian educationalist, Matthew Arnold,  called it ‘a disaster’ and that ‘in the game of mechanical contrivances’ clever teachers could get children to pass the tests without them ‘really knowing how to read, write, or cipher.’ Again, sound familiar?

It took 35 years to get rid of the Revised Code, let’s hope it doesn’t take so long to get rid of its successor.

A version of this article was first published in Teach Primary magazine.

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One Response to Performance Related Pay and the Rise of Authoritarianism in Schools

  1. @qwerty43211234 Tuesday, 24 March 2015 at 15:58 #

    Does performance have to be rated by test scores, surely there is a way of grading teachers pay, which is not based solely on years on the job. I am probably being unrealistic to how pay actually works.