Long before federal Education Minister began a push to force the states to adopt performance pay for teachers, English school headmasters had the power to award their favourite pedagogues a bit extra while also denying troublemakers among their staff any prospects of promotion or end-of-year bonuses.

It was clear to me in the various London schools I once worked in that it was not always the top teachers who were rewarded. Cronyism, toadyism and, to quote Mark Latham, plain old a-se licking were just as likely to receive recompense as high-quality teaching.

In Australia, most private school principals have also had the financial freedom to pay individuals among their staff more than the current agreements provide whereas their state school counterparts have little control over how much particular teachers earn.

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Bishop, however, wants to change that and has been trying to pressure the Labor states into adopting merit pay for teachers in public schools. In this she is following a succession of Coalition education ministers, from David Kemp to Brendan Nelson, in attempting to use the Commonwealth’s financial clout to impose a conservative ideology on education institutions.

This morning, she announced the government would call for tenders from experts to develop models of performance-based pay for teachers, claiming that in other professions, performance-based pay schemes “are proven to work and are accepted as an effective way to enhance career structures”. What those other professions are she didn’t say.

There’s an element of age-old teacher bashing in this – a widespread belief among those who may have suffered under poor teachers during their school years that the profession is dominated by incompetents who are lazy left-wingers, in the job only for the long holidays and short working hours. Teaching, however, is an enormously complex activity and critics should try a stint in a classroom crowded with testosterone-charged teenagers for a day or two to find out what life inside the little red schoolhouse is really like.

In April, Bishop took the issue of performance pay to an official meeting of state and territory education ministers in Darwin, proposing that a trial begin in schools next year. Principals would have the authority to judge the performance of teachers and determine their salaries based on student results, parent and student views, contribution to school life and “the attainment of professional registration standards”.

Yet studies in the United States and Australia have questioned the very idea with a recent American investigation concluding that, despite the rush to introduce merit pay for teachers across the US, its spread was occurring “with virtually no evidence of its potential effectiveness”.

Likewise, a study by the Australian Council for Educational Research, commissioned by the federal government to look at performance pay for teachers, stated that systems relying primarily on student test results, or on direct evidence about what students were doing in classrooms, were unlikely to be reliable.

Although the state education ministers rejected Bishop’s plan she, like her predecessors, warned she will use federal grants to get her way. This morning, she said the states would need to cooperate or $42 billion worth of school spending would be at risk when the next four-year funding round begins in 2009.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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