Teaching Profession

Pay-Scheme Tempest Blows Over Britain

By Jeff Archer — November 22, 2000 5 min read

Like many other educators in England, Rita Murphy has mixed feelings on the topic of teacher pay.

She’s eager to get a 2,000-pound salary supplement she expects from a new performance-based-pay system for teachers in her country. But she also thinks the pay scheme itself is little more than a new bureaucratic hurdle that forces educators to prove they’re worthy of the extra cash.

“I think I’m actually due the money, but I hate the system that dragged me through it,” said Ms. Murphy, who teaches special-needs children at a secondary school serving a working-class community.

Few education initiatives undertaken by Britain’s current government have engendered such conflicting emotions as the new pay system. A similar debate is brewing in the United States, but the saga in England involves some added twists.

The issue has divided British teachers’ groups, with one union attacking the program in court, while others see it as their best hope for getting additional money for salaries. Even now that nearly everyone there agrees the pay plan is firmly in place, disagreement continues over whether the system actually creates the intended incentives.

“It’s been a big issue of debate and a big cultural change for teachers,” Schools Minister Estelle Morris—herself a former teacher—said in an interview last week. “But given the caliber of the change, I think we’ve made incredible progress in two years.”

Polishing the Profession

Word that a new pay system was on the horizon surfaced in 1998 with a government document now simply called “The Green Paper.” It proposed several major initiatives aimed at “modernizing” the teaching profession.

Supporters saw performance-related pay as a way to alleviate the country’s teacher shortage. Because England’s salary scale tops out after about seven years—after which classroom teachers merely get cost-of- living adjustments—the only way for many experienced teachers to increase their pay has been to take administrative positions. Another argument was that rewarding teachers more for their abilities would make the profession more attractive.

“The message we were giving to people was, if you’re good, we’ll financially reward you,” Ms. Morris said.

The government of Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair called its plan the “threshold” program, because teachers were required to demonstrate that they had achieved certain levels of performance before receiving additional pay.

Eligibility was opened to all teachers at the top of the pay scale in England. The program has yet to be implemented in Wales, and Scotland has its own school system.

Those who were successful would get an additional 2,000 pounds—worth about $2,850—plus they’d gain access to an extended salary scale that included up to four more 1,000 pound increases. (Each year, another cohort of experienced teachers would become eligible.)

To apply for the extra cash, teachers had to demonstrate their abilities in such areas as lesson planning, setting student objectives, and the use of student assessments. The applications then went to their principals, who decide who actually passes the threshold. The government also hired a cadre of external assessors to sample applications at each school.

Level Field?

Though the plan was presented as a reward for a job well done, many British educators saw it as simply another in a long line of attempts by political leaders to paint classroom teachers as the main reason many schools have failed to improve. Many also argued that rewarding individuals threatened collegiality.

The loudest complaints focused on the fact that one part of the threshold program asked teachers to show that they had had an impact on their students’ test results. Educators had to demonstrate that their students achieved “well relative to” their “prior attainment” and made progress “as good or better than similar students nationally.”

Said Ms. Morris: “We believed that teachers make a difference, not just by themselves— they’re not responsible for everything—but they are a major contributor to pupil results.”

But some teachers vehemently objected.

“There are so many background factors that affect student achievement over which teachers have no control,” said John Bangs, an official with the National Union of Teachers, the country’s largest teachers’ union. “So people feel bitterly that this is not a level playing field.”

The NUT took the government to court, arguing that education officials had pushed through the threshold program without following proper procedures. In England, the national government determines teachers’ salaries, but it’s supposed to do so after consulting with the independent School Teachers’ Review Body. The NUT argued that the review body hadn’t been given enough input, and a judge in the national court system agreed in a ruling in July.

The action infuriated government officials, who said it merely delayed the program, forcing the nearly 200,000 teachers who had applied for the added pay to wait several more months before possibly getting it.

The pay arrangement got back on track last month when the STRB finally endorsed the plan. Although the system remains largely as the government originally proposed, teachers’ groups did get some concessions, including the possibility of an appeals procedure for teachers who are turned down. Education officials now say successful teachers will receive the added pay by early next spring.

At this point, even those who still have reservations about the system are resigned to the idea that it is going to be a fact of life, at least for the immediate future. In fact, some union leaders have said the plan could ultimately be good for the profession, especially if it brings in more money for salaries.

The unions estimate that 80 percent or more of those who applied for the extra pay will actually receive it.

“I think the challenge of teachers’ organizations is to work toward a situation where you can realize greater public funding for schools,” said Eamonn O’Kane, an official with the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, the country’s second-largest teachers’ union.

“That’s the big challenge in Europe and in the United States.” he said. “I don’t think we’ve got any chance of persuading [policymakers] without linking [pay], from time to time, to how things are going in the schools.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 22, 2000 edition of Education Week as Pay-Scheme Tempest Blows Over Britain

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