I Spy Two Things Beginning with ‘P’ – Profit and Pay

COMMENT – Stupid ideas from ministers and the Emperor of Ofsted are like pieces of litter on the school canteen floor:  leave one lying there and soon it will be joined by many, many more.  You have to nip it in the bud by immediately declaring it to be rubbish and lobbing it in the bin before it even hits the ground.

It is with this in mind that I approach any news item on education these days, brandishing my metaphorical bin bag and litter picker in order to ensure a speedy dispatch.  I didn’t have long to wait this week, as two, seemingly unrelated (note my use of ‘seemingly’, because we’ll be returning to this concept later and I shall ask questions) ‘ideas’ dropped at my feet like bits of too-hard pizza crust lobbed by a year 11 boy who is probably called Dylan.

The Telegraph was falling all over itself to announce that Ofsted is proposing to ‘evaluate the “robustness” of systems used by schools to evaluate teaching standards – making sure only the best staff receive rewards’.  In other words, they want heads to stop awarding the pay increments and movement on to and up through the Upper Pay Spine for all except the ‘best’ teachers.  As you can imagine, the Daily Mail was effervescing with joy at the idea, reporting that ‘Inspectors will use the data to determine whether heads and governors are ‘showing strong leadership and management skills and using performance management effectively to assist in the drive for improvement’. 

Just to show he was on the side of the righteous, Michael ‘shoving letters through letterboxes is really stressful’ Wilshaw said he thought everyone would want this because nothing annoys ‘good’ teachers more than seeing ‘bad’ ones get pay rises.  After all, he continued, Ofsted inspection data shows that 40% of lessons annually are rated ‘less than good’.  I expected the article to tell us that Wilshaw smirked broadly at this point, punching the air and singing ‘Here we go, here we go, here we go’, because as evidence goes, this was up there with the Manchester United supporters I heard at Old Trafford recently asking the Liverpool footballer Andy Carroll if he was a man or a woman, based on the fact he has a ponytail.

As fact manipulation goes, however, Wilshaw has surpassed himself this time.  ‘Less than good’ incorporates the category ‘satisfactory’, which Wilshaw himself has now decided should be transformed into the somewhat different ‘requiring improvement’.  At a stroke, he thereby does not so much move the goalposts as replace them with a single cricket stump, painted green to blend in with its surroundings.  I’m sure I’m not the only teacher to recall that satisfactory used to be called ‘sound’ and I know I’m not the only person with a better-than-Wilshaw grasp of English who knows for certain that ‘satisfactory’ is a far cry from ‘requiring improvement’.

What’s going on here, then?  Those with no direct connection with schools could be forgiven for believing that schools are jammed to the rafter with ‘less than good’ teachers hell-bent on never improving their practice one whit, whilst ‘outstanding’ ones clamour in droves at the school gates, their much-better lesson plans clutched in their caring, dedicated fingers.   Read beneath the articles in both the Telegraph and the Mail and you’ll see the usual range of anti-teacher invective, all claiming – as always – that our schools have never been so awful and that teachers deserve a good kicking.  I decided, however, that as Wilshaw himself mentioned the Ofsted annual report I would wander across and have a bit of a look at it – and very interesting reading it makes, too.

Of special interest to me, because I’ve worked in a very wide range of schools during my career, was the following piece of the 2011 report: “There remains a strong relationship between deprivation and weaker provision and the gap in the quality of schools between socially deprived areas and more advantaged areas is a continuing concern. Seventy-one per cent of schools serving the least deprived pupils were judged to be good or outstanding compared with 48% of schools serving the most deprived pupils.” 

You don’t have to be the sharpest pencil in the box to know that this statistic does not mean that the teachers in schools serving the most affluent areas are all gifted, dedicated and marvellously effective grafters, whereas those working in schools located in areas of deprivation are idle, semi-literate oafs who spend lessons poking their impish, but lovable charges with pointy sticks.  I’ve worked in an all-girls school which served a largely middle class population and I’ve also worked in an all-boys school located in Tower Hamlets; I was still the same teacher, but I know that I had to work twenty times harder in the boys’ school than in the girls and I can state categorically that it is immeasurably harder to get children from deprived backgrounds to make progress, particularly if they are not native speakers of English.

What Wilshaw’s two latest ideas – to judge school leadership on the ‘robustness’ of its performance management systems in relation to the school’s effectiveness and the re-classification of ‘satisfactory’ to ‘requiring improvement’ – will do is very, very simple:  by making it far less likely that the teachers in ‘less than good’ schools will get pay rises,  it will ensure that those schools serving deprived areas become ‘pariah’ schools for most teachers and send as many who can manage to escape fleeing elsewhere.

Now, those of you who have paid close attention will be asking about the other piece of idiocy that I claimed earlier I would turn to at some point.  It comes, of course, from the other purveyor of educational lunacy, Michael ‘it doesn’t rhyme with shove’ Gove, who under interrogation by the Leveson inquiry revealed that he is ‘open-minded’ over the notion of state schools being run for profit.  Anyone who has even the remotest knowledge of state school funding understands that the only way to make ‘profits’ from school budgets is to cut budget headings somewhere.  Gove has already enabled free schools to make savings, should they wish, from the largest of all budget headings, by allowing them to appoint absolutely anyone as a teacher, qualified or not.  It’s not a very large stretch from there to see that if the government were to allow profit-making bodies into the state education sector, their best means of making easy returns is to cut what is spent on salaries and keep it for themselves.

It is at this point that I’ll end simply by posing a question:  Wilshaw’s move to force headteachers to cut pay progression and Gove’s ‘open mind’ on state schools being run for profit in future couldn’t possibly be related – could they?

Please submit your comments below.

Helen Freeborn

Helen Freeborn was a secondary headteacher for 11 years until she gave it all up to live in Greece. Now returned after four years abroad, she divides her time between consultancy, training, a range of writing projects and catching up with all the television she has missed.

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  1. I suppose there’s no connection with the ever increasing numbers of “health care assistants” doing the jobs of the ever diminishing number of nurses in our hospitals either?

  2. Brilliant. Erudite and scathing while hitting several nails on several heads.

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