Psycho vs Wimp: The PRP Debate

Psycho vs Wimp. Some of the debate is on that level.
Psycho vs Wimp. The PRP Debate: I’m  with the carrot.

The debate about the merits of Performance Related Pay is going to rumble on, with schools grappling with new PRP requirements in their pay policies, strike action around the country and newly promoted politicians like Tristam Hunt asked to take a view on whether PRP is a good thing.

I worry that the debate we are forced to have is too often removed from a discussion of the details, the underlying objectives, the reality of Government policy and the way PRP is implemented in schools.  It’s not a black vs white scenario – and people need to watch what they say.

To start with, before the most recent changes, the Standard Teachers Pay and Conditions (STPC) already had embedded several elements of PRP:

  • The need to pass a threshold for entry to the profession.
  • A probationary period for NQTs
  • A threshold assessment between M6 and UPS1
  • Previously we had additional responsibilities for UPS2 and UPS3 – although they’ve been watered down somewhat with the new Teacher Standards documentation.
  • We’ve always had Capability Procedures and they’ve been streamlined in recent years to allow schools to remove staff who are clearly under-performing after going through a proper process with clear targets for improvement.  I’ve always argued that this process should be used more…. and certainly more often than holding back a mediocre teacher’s pay year after year.
  • Schools have had the capacity to offer Recruitment and Retention points in order to attract or retain teachers where appropriate – matching previous salaries, enhancing pay for people in shortage subjects, enticing people to move out of the higher weighting areas or into schools that might be more challenging.  Heads or Governing Bodies have had discretion in relation to where to place new teachers on the scale, taking account of past experience and so on.
  • Teachers have had opportunities to progress as ASTs , now SLEs or Lead Practitioners:  positions in schools that could attract additional payment in relation to excellence in the classroom.

In a sense, all of these things relate performance to pay.  There has always been the power to reward good staff, to remove weak staff and to operate a transparent incremental scale. However, that system was underpinned by a fundamental concept that teachers should be paid the same for the doing the same job – to the greatest possible extent.  It was also underpinned by a notion of collective responsibility  or shared accountability, especially for the highest earning teachers.  Most importantly, this form of pay is based on the idea of maintaining general professional standards – as opposed to meeting specific outcome measure performance goals – which is much more meaningful as a complete picture of a teacher in a school.

The previous system was not without flaws. One area that has been difficult to deal with has been where senior teachers, on the UPS scale, have been unable to sustain meeting the criteria for providing leadership and support beyond their own classrooms; there has not been a mechanism for teachers to step back down again; capability has been the only way out – or early retirement.   There has also been the issue that TLRs and SLT roles offer greater potential for remuneration than the parallel class-teacher pathway.  The AST model required funding and that has largely gone.

However, the new regulations have forced schools to adopt a process by which only the newest teachers are systematically processed through a PRP regime.  Although there is very strong evidence that it takes several years for a teacher to develop into a fully functioning expert teacher, there is a requirement to satisfy certain performance standards year-on-year in order to progress.  The new measures don’t have an impact on the UPS issue.. and there is still no dignified way back down.

I’ve argued elsewhere that PRP is the wrong diagnosis and the wrong solution to improving the quality of teaching.  Of course, I am talking about the specific PRP proposals introduced in September.  Since then, I’ve continued to be frustrated by the discussions on a number of fronts:

1. The ‘big kahunas’ counter-argument,  often laced with a kind of sneering machismo.  I’ve read comments like this:

  • Any decent Head knows who the good teachers are; they should have the courage to pay them properly.
  • It’ll be news to people working in other industries that PRP doesn’t work.
  • It’ll be news to the excellent teachers working in Great Example School where PRP has driven up standards.
  • Don’t tell me you’ve never given a bonus for excellent performance. 
  • How can you justify paying crap teachers just for time-serving? It wouldn’t happen in any other job.

Well, to me, all of these arguments – in fact pretty much all the arguments in favour or systematic PRP regimes -are massively flawed.  PRP is not a proven motivator across all sectors in any case… and we generally do well in education not taking lessons from people driven by narrow profit motives. People opposed to PRP aren’t just a bunch of wimps who can’t take the tough calls.  I really can’t stand this – especially when it comes from journalists who don’t teach and probably couldn’t.

2.  Performance-measure delusion and distortion

This is so widespread that I often feel the world has gone mad. In many practical PRP policies up and down the country, there will be references to student data and lesson observations.  We know that in relation to student outcomes, the teacher factor is only one of many;  student outcomes depend on the teachers that taught them before; the teachers who support them pastorally; parents; the school ethos in general; the level of ability of the group… so many variables that it is rare to be able to pin outcomes to one teacher.

I know a HoD (not in my school) who always gives himself the top sets.  He regularly criticises his junior colleagues for the results they get with classes he won’t take.  I know another HoD (from a school visit) who was cynical about the school’s  (pixelclubbed) target system given that some of his teachers got inflated feedback on their class outcomes when he felt he’d personally added most value via the intensive intervention classes he had run for them.  In the same school, teachers could be described as ‘10% below target’ as if that was a solid fact.

With lesson observations, many PRP policies will state that the average of three or at least two observations should be Good or better.  All over the country teachers are sweating hours – literally hours and hours and hours – for their observed lessons. The stakes are high.  Your salary can depend on three half-hour lesson snapshots.  This is despite often-cited research that single-person observations are massively unreliable and inconsistent.

Putting all this together, there is a massive system-wide delusion that a few data samples and a few lesson observations taken within one year, give a school sufficient information to determine that the young people in one class have learned more effectively than the young people have learned in another class – and that this is due to the performance of the teacher.  It is far, far more complicated than that.

Ignoring this complexity… glossing over it… leads to teachers doing weird things to prioritise lesson observations and to manipulate exam outcomes to maximise the impression of their effectiveness.

3. The ‘reward the best’ rhetoric

It’s well worth repeating this: ‘Teachers should work AS a team, not just IN a team’. Dylan Wiliam.

Why does he say this? Because it is the best way for all teachers to improve, for learning outcomes to improve and for our shared understanding of pedagogy and curriculum in our contexts to develop.  We’re not lone wolves fighting each other; teacher A and teacher B should be equally concerned and responsible for each other’s students’ results.  Compare that with the suggestion from the DFE that schools could give the top X%  of their staff a pay bonus of Y%.  What a disgraceful notion that is.

However big X is…there is always going to be a cut-off. Let’s say 30 top teachers earn the bonus.. there will be Teacher 31.  No system – literally none – could provide measures that could separate Teacher 30 from Teacher 31 in anything but an arbitrary manner.  What? Teacher 30 got 72% 3 Levels progress but Teacher 31 only got 69%?  Or Teacher 30’s lessons are just that bit better on average than teacher 31’s… even though they teach different students, different subject, have different line managers….even though the actual learning of their students can’t meaningfully be known anyway.  Give us all a break!  This top X % nonsense is garbage. Please don’t tell me you have that in your school.  It’s indefensible.

4. The challenging circumstances case

I’ve read and heard the case made that in challenging circumstances or where housing is expensive and recruitment is tough, schools need to be able to offer the best people incentives to remain or to join.  Well, to me, that has always been the case.  Recruitment and Retention points have been part of the system for a long time.  It could well be that some schools need to push the boat out to recruit a Head of Maths or a Physics teacher. But, in the main, that is a separate issue entirely.  PRP doesn’t tackle that issue, if nothing else because schools only have a certain amount of money.

You can’t pay more to everyone; you can’t pay more to some people without suppressing the pay of others.  In any case, beyond what schools could afford through R&R points to the same extent they always could, most teachers are probably more motivated to work in challenging schools by the ethos and spirit of collaboration – rather than because of a PRP system that might shoot them up the scale, walking on the shoulders of the time-servers (who could well be making a bigger contribution over the long term than they seem in the here and now.)

5.   The ‘it works over there’ argument.  Famous Head Sir Big Cheese from ‘Flavour of the Month’ school uses PRP so it must be good.

Well, I’d wager that any school that is a great place to work and has good student outcomes does not need PRP, whether they have it or not.  Just because a school uses PRP, doesn’t mean that they have succeeded because of it.  I would suggest that where staff feel motivated, rewarded and challenged, the extent to which the pay structure has delivered this will be marginal.  It has ‘placebo effect’ written all over it.  All of the exact same outcomes could be generated without the pay-performance rhetoric.  The problem is that most schools that use PRP in a high-profile manner will need to justify it.. they are hardly likely to say it makes no difference.

I’d also bet this: If you could know all that is knowable about learning, deep deep down… in any PRP intensive school, every year, teachers will be paid extra for their performance when they deserve it less than others who are not.  Why? Because the measures simply cannot be accurate enough for that not to happen.

I’ll go one step further and finish there. A rhetorical self-evaluation question:  If you’re a Head and you really feel the need for a strong PRP system in order to motivate your staff and tackle under-performance, is that a sign of strength  – or weakness.  Wimp or Psycho? Are these the right way around?



  1. As ever – well argued and intelligent. The biggest issue, for me, is that it turns the teacher into a commodity. I guess we’ve already turned students into commodities with data driven targets but that doesn’t justify turning teachers into faceless units as well – pupils and teachers are human not units of production. The path to inevitable corruption is giving a Head a limited budget and also giving him/her the power to allocate a decreasing cut to his/her staff. We are already seeing dubious Observation outcomes in schools and outrageous, often impossible, targets – mostly aimed at expensive staff. The whole system seems to be gearing up for self-destruct.


  2. Excellent blog. Completely agree that the devil is in the detail – and haven’t heard anything coming out of a politician’s mouth on this subject which suggests that they know how to strengthen PRP. Best option is for heads to make more use of the powers they already have. That involves politicians not doing anything – which is always their least favoured option!


  3. Excellent contribution as always and chimes with my own concerns as a CoG trying to work through these issues with my Head. A few thoughts and experiences to add to this:

    a) a skiing buddy of mine worked in the trading division of a big bank. There (and, he said, in all other similar banks) the top 10% by trading returns each year got eye-wateringly large bonuses and the bottom 10% got sacked. There was no discussion of boundary conditions, margin between the 10 percentile and the 10th percentile+1; no engagement in the ‘fairness’ of this process. It was a winner-take-nearly-all tournament (like golf, or tennis or even drug dealing as explored by Levitt and Dubner This is the model of PRP the ‘psychos’ would adopt;
    b) I introduced a new appraisal system into an FE college after ‘incorporation (similar to academy conversion now) when the general atmosphere was all gung-ho private sector management techniques. It became very clear very quickly that a) conclusions about performance were matters of judgement, not just data (though we had much less of them then) b) someone had to make that judgment and this was normally a ‘middle manager’ of some description and c) the variability of those judgements made them an inconsistent basis for pay decisions so we preferred to concentrate on the development/improvement function
    c) staff are not very motivated by smallish increments of money – they are very motivated by comparative esteem which small differences in money can signify. So minor differences can provoke massive rows of the storm-in-a-teacup variety. The banking sector (ref above) has demonstrated the dysfunctional impact of a bonus culture when lots of money is at stake. in any case, almost all teaching is a collective endeavour so, if you fancy a bonus system, it should be paid to teams not individuals;
    d) But, and maybe paradoxically, I am absolutely against a reward system based on time served so the basic concept of progression based on either a) taking more responsibility or b) being outstanding at what you do seems to me to be both morally right and in the best interests of the children.


  4. Great stuff, as usual.
    As you state, the UPS issue hasn’t gone away; it will be interesting to see if this system has any impact on it.


  5. Nice Dan Pink commentry on Why Bonus cultures corrupt –
    I might be one of the few serving headteachers with over 30 years in post. In the early ’90s, we explored introducing PRP, and whilst TPS were working out that the rules of same would not be permissible within the structures of the day, we had a little play. Disastrous – there was a really strong correlation between those who could be monetised through short-term and those who did not culturally believe in the concept of ‘going the extra mile’.
    Pay people enough so they are not thinking about their pay, but thinking about their work, and you get better work – ‘Autonomy, mastery and purpose’. What’s interesting about the choices teachers make to move from situations where they feel in control (the classroom) to positions of greater threat, is that it takes time to develop the Mastery of the Specific (the classroom) before you can become adept at managing the department or indeed leading the school. Working in education, the biggest danger of rapid employment, promotion, acceleration of pay and movement to leadership is that per se, that’s not the best way things work. And given that I am still in my fifties, clearly I am an exception that proves the rule – promoted far too early above his levels of competence…
    and I have spent the last 33 years working that out!


  6. Hi there, I really like this image and would like to use it on a presentation. Do you happen to have any copyright info or source information?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s