Opinion Analysis

Sunday 25 August 2019

New three R: ratings, regulation and rigidity

By SIMON JENKINS IS teaching a profession, or is it skilled manual work? Is its essence a relationship of trust between teacher and taught?...

IS teaching a profession, or is it skilled manual work? Is its essence a relationship of trust between teacher and taught? Or is it quantifiable output? Is it a vocation, or just a job?

Charles Dickens knew the difference. The opening of Hard Times sets the imagination of Sissy Jupe's wild horse against Bitzer's graminivorous quadruped. It savages Thomas Gradgrind's monstrous kingdom of facts, heralding ``the great public-office millennium, when Commissioners shall reign upon the earth.''

English schooling was then passing through a brief flirtation with ``nationalisation.'' Dickens saw ``a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact.'' Teachers would be paid by how far they could fill their ``little pitchers'' with facts. There was no money for imagination, or sunshine.

Teacher union conferences are horrific. When I once reported them we held sweepstakes on how few times the word ``child'' would be heard. As a gaggle of left-wing careerists eager only for longer holidays, less work and more pay, the old National Unions of Teachers could not be equalled.

The Labour Party and local education committees were in its thrall. Schools suffered. Efforts to reorganise secondary education and update the curriculum were undermined so badly that recent governments have panicked and put back the clock of reform by 50 years. But on one thing the teachers are at present right. It is outrageous to link their salaries in any way to the ability or ``exam output'' of the pupils in their care.

Last week BBC radio was inundated by parental feedback after an item on the stress communicated to children by teachers under Education Minister David Blunkett's new testing and inspection regime. They protested too much.

I see nothing wrong in putting institutions on their mettle. Were it not for the abuse of tests by Whitehall nerds for sadistic league tables, schools should be put ``on parade,'' even at some cost in collective stress.

Paying teachers by means of a vague catalogue of ``national professional effectiveness criteria,'' including pupil performance, is a different matter.

The ratings are designed to ``underpin a national promotion system'' and thus must reflect individual value-added to an individual pupil. The bureaucracy to calculate this will be awesome. Worse, it must strain the relationship between teacher and child. It declares that what is important in that relationship is what is measurable, and that such measurement should be the basis of pecuniary reward. It puts a teacher's ``uplift'' of some stg£2,000 a year at risk from the failure of a child. This is professionally obscene.

The quantification of education in all 40,000 schools in England and Wales so that ministers can run them direct from Whitehall is now a fanatical, raging, catch-all obsession. It runs from tests for seven-year-olds to the scoring of ``outputs'' by senior scholars.

Mr Blunkett has continued where the tories began.

Dickens would not need to invent Coketown's ``Philosopher of Fact'': could list Mr Blunkett's weekly vanload of key stages, circulars and regulations. The millennium of commissioners has come with the millennium. Teaching in Britain already has a sufficient measure of performance-related pay.

Unlike lecturing or medicine or the Civil Service, the profession offers a range of institutional choice and thus of career opportunity. Mobility up and across the profession is easy. Good teachers can win promotion without leaving the classroom. A competent head teacher can juggle his or her staff to reward loyalty and retain ability. Extra duties are remunerated. The system can respond to a school's needs, as determined by heads and governors, without recourse to Whitehall's asinine rigidities.

A public servant is paid (by you and me) a salary and pension to work to the best of his or her ability. Bad teachers should go, on that we can agree, but good ones should not need a piecework incentive to work hard. We do not pay doctors according to mortality or longevity rates. We do not pay soldiers by the number of enemy dead.

Mr Blunkett's officials are not paid (yet) by the media column inches they win him each day.

Policemen are not paid for the number of criminals caught nor prison governors on the recidivism of their charges. Some lawyers are being paid by results, which is deplorable, but at least it does not impact on children or the poor.

That teachers should require a financial incentive to ``display professional characteristics'' or help their pupils to pass exams imputes to them the most cynical of motives. It also imposes a huge strain on those who should bear it least, those children and parents whose circumstances suggest that they do poorly in exams.

When Tory ministers began to nationalise the school system in the 1990s, they said it was to ``free it from local authority bureaucracy.''

We have been here before. In the 1830s and 1840s, English education was likewise ``reformed'' by centralisation.

Even the fiercely libertarian Victorians found themselves sucked into prescribed curricula, regimented teacher training and, after a commission in 1861, payment-by-results. It seemed the only way they could keep control.

Centralisation lasted until the 1870 Act and the election of local school boards. Payment-by-results, enforced by armies of hated inspectors, was educationally arid, and regarded as cruel to teachers and pupils alike. It collapsed.

That payment-by-results should ensue under the present de facto renationalisation of schools may be grimly inevitable, but it beggars belief. History repeats itself as tragedy and farce at one go. But who will save education from this fiasco? That is the real irony. It will be lawyers paid by results.

The first children who fail an exam, or who sicken or die under the stress of payment-by-results will bring the mother of all parental class actions against Mr Blunkett's department. They deserve to win.

The Times, London

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