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What a performance about paying teachers!

By Ian Keese - posted Monday, 23 April 2007

The issue of “performance pay” for teachers has produced a lot of heat and very little light. While in general terms the debate exemplifies the dreadful waste of resources when a federal government tries to influence state-run schooling, at least one important issue has surfaced - the position of the mid-career teacher.

If you measured the performance of the Federal education ministry over the past few years under Brendan Nelson and Julie Bishop, there would have to be concern about the millions of dollars spent on bureaucrats, consultants and reports, as the Government has tried to impose its own political correctness on schools with pseudo-issues like flagpoles, A to E rankings on reports and chaplains in schools - and now on performance pay.

The Federal Ministry does not run one school or employ one teacher. Its only major functions in relation to schooling should be ensuring that equitable funding goes to public and private schools and supporting teacher training through its power over universities.


It is heartbreaking to think of the many ways these millions of dollars could have been spent on actually improving the educational experiences of students: improving the physical environment of public schools, providing more on-site experience to trainee teachers or more support in their first years of teaching, or providing post-graduate scholarships to experienced teachers.

The actual term “performance pay” belies the market place ideology. You can reward the performance of a car salesman who goes beyond his monthly quota (and whether he does this by honest or devious methods is irrelevant) but the “results” of a good teacher are individualistic and complex, and often it is the change they bring about in the “difficult” student that is most significant. And this is a change that is hidden by a focus on “top scores”.

The ideological bent was clear in Julie Bishop’s initial presentation of the proposal for performance pay where she managed to simultaneously attack public schools and promote work place agreements.

The Age on September 20, 2006 reported that “Ms Bishop warned of an exodus of young high-quality teachers to private schools which have already started to embrace performance-based pay”. From my experience teachers are in particular schools, whether public or private, more from their own convictions than from the pay they receive.

In the same article Ms Bishop said: “There are a range of options, from a bonus paid to salary packages, to teachers being employed under AWAs,” and when asked whether performance-based pay would be a condition of federal funding, she said, “Clearly that is an option”.

However, concealed in this debate is an issue that should be addressed. The salary of a classroom teacher in Australia reaches a plateau after nine years, with another 25 years ahead of teaching ahead of them. While there are a limited number of executive positions many of the best teachers choose to stay in the classroom and continue to develop their skills, knowledge and general classroom expertise.


Their daily face to face contact with children provides the heart and soul of teaching, and there should be a series of steps through which by the end of the second half of their teaching career they could acquire the status of a senior teacher, with a salary of the same order as the head of a subject faculty.

The Victorian Government has already introduced such a scheme with categories of accomplished and expert classroom teacher and leading teacher. In New South Wales the Quality Teaching Awards program run jointly since 2001 by the Australian College of Educators and the NSW Education Department and with the participation of the Teacher’s Union, provides an excellent basis for such a scheme.

The real stumbling block for governments of all persuasions, and for the governing bodies of private schools is that such a program would require real money - and this was a key feature lacking in Julie Bishop’s proposal.

This money could come from increasing our spending on public education from 3.6 per cent of GDP (2000 figures) to closer to 4 per cent (which would still be less than countries like New Zealand and Sweden) or transferring money from the bureaucracy in Canberra. The encouragement and support of the best teachers in a way that doesn’t devalue others would be worth every cent.

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About the Author

Ian Keese has degrees in Science and the Arts. He has been a secondary school history teacher and is a Fellow of the Australian College of Educators. He lives in Melbourne and writes on history and education or anything else in which he becomes interested.

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