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Primary Education News
News Teacher-bashing: a political sport with no winners | Polly Toynbee
It's pupils, not performance-related pay, that motivate teachers – as I learned from a day in charge of a class in a Liverpool school
Teaching is hard work and fascinating. That's the lesson I learned in my day at Fazakerley High in north Liverpool, where I doubt the pupils I taught learned half as much as I did. Teach First, the charity sending high-flying graduates into deprived areas is launching a campaign to break the cycle of educational disadvantage. Inviting people from other professions to teach for a day lets outsiders understand modern education. The experience will shoot down battalions of myths about schools, teachers and teaching methods, misrepresentations too often spread by the education secretary himself.
Half of Fazakerley's pupils are on free school meals in this mostly white, poor district. The school is rated "good" by Ofsted, and half got five good GCSEs, including English and maths – improving at twice the national average rate – with 92% getting five passes. It's a bright, airy school, quiet and orderly, no corridor scrums between lessons; students are friendly with teachers, giving a warmth to the place that goes with the head making it a "family school".
I was assigned to Chris Brolly, a Teach First-er in his third year. His 12- and 13-year-olds have been inventing a product – bottled water – and it's my task to help them write a press release. Can they create their own USP, write a grabby headline, hold the fleeting attention of a journalist, persuade with seductive language?
Chris has sent me advice on how to organise a 50-minute lesson in five- or 10-minute segments and use the white board to hold their gaze. Trying not to sound too nervous, I give them cards with words that might suit their product, posting up sample press releases as they write out their own.
The class is kindly to this beginner, encouraging and keen. I watched Chris's techniques with care: he stands at the door, shaking hands and greeting each student by name, obliging them to speak up and look him in the eye, setting a tone for the lesson that is friendly and calm: no slouching, no grunting. What strikes me is how well-thought out is every minute of his lessons. What I don't know – and research is thin – is how real learning gets from teacher to pupil, the thinking, the educating. No wonder politics focuses on the mechanics of who runs schools, or the testing regime. Yet what matters is what happens right here: maybe different for each child, but too ineffable for politics.
The curse of the teaching profession is that everyone thinks they know how it should be done. All ministers think they know best from memories that are decades out of date – however they were educated, it worked: QED. They arrive eager to announce change, convinced voters want children Gradgrind-ed. Teachers are forever told to "bring back spelling, times tables and uniforms", as if they ever went away. Or they are plagued by History Boys romance: "In my day we had inspirational eccentric teachers" – as if these too are no more.
Beating up teachers is everyday politics – aided, alas, by the annual ritual of a few union hotheads paraded on news bulletins at the NUT's Easter conference. But by any measure teaching has vastly improved, moving on Labour's watch from a low-rank profession to one highly favoured by graduates. The discipline of the curriculum, lesson preparation and assessment is unrecognisable from ministers' schooldays – yet the call to weed out bad teachers is a political imperative. Michael Gove's latest evidence-free policy is that chestnut, performance-related pay, to be imposed on all schools. Almost all evidence shows it doesn't work, or does harm.
Extensive research by the LSE's David Marsden concludes that bribing public-sector professionals to work harder makes no difference, while causing resentment and division. What works is good staff appraisal and goal-setting, but it's a Conservative tenet that only money motivates people. PRP only works with low-paid piece-rate working – strawberry picking – but doesn't motivate civil servants, teachers or nurses.
PRP is in decline in the private sector, according to Alex Bryson of the Centre for Economic Performance. In an era of pay freezes, managers use it less and less. They easily identify the few who are outstanding or failing, but the great majority are always in the middle where forcing spurious distinctions that account for small sums of money "causes a lot of grief", says Marsden.
In most professions, as in teaching, it's hard to know who's responsible for improvements. Christine Rourke, the head of Fazakerley High, says she has no need of further incentives: she can already reward high performers to keep them in the classroom. Appraisals and teachers peer-reviewing one another are key. But Ofsted inspectors will demand proof she has used performance pay
What motivates pupils? At the end of class I asked them to write down what they wanted to do after school: they all had ambitions, some maybe higher than they will reach. While ministers blame "lack of aspiration", these children have plenty.
But only a third of pupils who get good GCSE grades are on free school meals. A YouGov poll finds most voters don't think poorer children will ever get an equal education. Gove, calling for payment by results, cited Singapore's high-achieving school system, "where expectations are higher". What he didn't say is that Singapore, like top performer Finland, is one of the most equal of developed nations. As his government drives up inequality, his schools face an ever tougher task compensating for the society they inhabit.