A school system ready for business

Stephen Ball

The House of Commons Education Select Committee recommendation for the introduction of performance–related pay (PRP) for teachers has sparked appropriate controversy and some unusual support and dissent. But of course this is not the first time we have been here. The existing “threshold” arrangements for teachers’ pay are the outcome of Labour’s failure to get PRP accepted by the teacher unions.

From the point of view of education policy the important thing is not to see PRP in isolation. Its reappearance has to be related to other policy trends and initiatives as part of a policy ensemble. That is, an interacting set of policies that have effects together. I am thinking of the introduction of new providers of free schools and academies, the creation of school chains, the awarding of contracts to run state schools to private providers, the possibility that free schools can employ untrained teachers, the refusal of some academies to recognise teacher unions and participate in national agreements on teachers’ pay and conditions, and the use of school examination pass percentages to construct league tables, set benchmarks for performance and identify “failing” schools.

Much depends on the fine detail but PRP looks like a further move toward a flexible workforce employed on short term, outcomes-based contracts, and a further diminution of the influence of teacher unions. Both of which are very attractive to existing school chains and private providers interested in taking on the running of state schools. By far the largest component of school budgets is staff salaries, if salaries can be tied more closely to contract requirements, and overall salary costs driven down by employing cheaper and unqualified teachers, then overheads and profits can be derived.

PRP is a further step towards an education system modelled directly on business methods and that is “ready” for commercial exploitation. And yet it is odd perhaps that schools are being encouraged to move to a system of remuneration that has served investment banks and the world’s financial systems so badly in recent times.

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