3 Aug '13

News Secret teacher: you can't put a price on education

Teaching isn't just about pupils' grades, which is why performance-related pay doesn't reflect the true value of education

In times of economic hardship, teachers and schools feel the sharp pain of cuts to school budgets and pay freezes – both personally and professionally.

As teachers plan further strikes over cuts to our pensions, the introduction of performance-related pay and workloads, I can't help but consider the concept of cost and worth.

I have worked in two schools during my teaching career, the first in a particularly economically and socially-deprived area. This school had serious money: with an above average number of students on free school meals, it enjoyed a hefty pupil premium.

But how was the money spent? Well, cynical staff would point to the extensive refurbishments, the head teacher's new office, the seemingly needless conference room and its distinct corporate image.

These things shouldn't be ignored – they raise interesting questions about why schools feel the need to run themselves like a business (this was not an academy). But what else was money spent on? Counselling, anger management, out-of-school programmes to integrate students into the community and boost their self-esteem, trips anywhere and everywhere, and a sports day where the whole school was shipped to a huge stadium so every student could watch or take part.

What's the value of these experiences for vulnerable children? Priceless. The word enrichment is thrown around a lot, but on one school trip to the Lake District several children were astounded by the experience as they'd never left their home community before. In some instances these opportunities go beyond the clinical term enrichment and become once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

The second school I worked in was as an academy in an extremely wealthy area. The number of pupils it had on free school meals was below average – and, boy, did we know about it.

At one point nothing could be photocopied, lest we exceed our department budget. When sports day came around, only students who were competing could go. Trips could be attended only if parents paid the full amount, and I never enjoyed any training or development because there was just no money.

When I raised the issue about how money could be spent more effectively to help pupils, the staff scoffed. The suggestion of anger management classes were met with sarcastic responses – and my other ideas didn't fare any better. It's perhaps no coincidence that this school has a very top-heavy senior management team, and mostly hires NQTs.

So here's my big question: who gets to decide what schools should spend their money on and what's education for? I would hope the majority of teachers agree that education isn't just about results. What we want students who leave our classrooms and schools to go home with isn't just good grades.

Many variables affect how well students perform, not least home life and attitude to education. To what extent is it fair to hold teachers responsible for their pupils' achievements? I've taught students who are capable of achieving the elusive C at GCSE but because of their own attitudes, lack of support from home, low confidence – the list could go on – they don't reach their potential. In fact, despite the lack of funds, the academy mentioned above still enjoyed better results – the achievement gap saw to that.

As teachers, what do we do for these young people if we don't get the exam results? We accept them, we encourage them, we motivate and support, we listen, we make them laugh and forget their troubles, even if only for 10 minutes. When I do those things, that's when I feel I have achieved – when my "performance" is at its best – but what's that worth?

Schools need to think carefully about who they spend their money on. Staffing and performance-related pay gives schools the opportunity to justify paying experienced members of staff less than they are worth based on the performance of their classes, which is only half the job.

Today's Secret Teacher works at a secondary school in the north of England.

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