Performance pay has no place in public education

May 9, 2009

New South Wales Teachers Federation (NSWTF)president Bob Lipscombe has announced an new position on performance pay on the federation's website.

Lipscombe doesn't use the term "performance pay", but instead talks about rewarding "accomplished teaching practice" with higher salaries. But this is exactly what performance pay is — the linking of teachers' pay to
a judgment of competence. His statement supports this concept.

Performance pay is a divisive practice. It goes hand-in-hand with the ideology that views schools as businesses rather than places where humans learn and teach. This is the same ideology that values the market before education, and money before people.

It is the same ideology that sought to break up the state-wide system for staffing schools in NSW. The state government still seeks to devolve the centralised public education system into a series of schools operating as businesses in isolation rather than as educational communities.

It is the same neoliberal ideology that justifies flogging off a whole raft of public assets in NSW: electricity retailers, prisons, the state superannuation fund administration company, Sydney Ferries and NSW Lotteries.

So, why is the federation backing such an ideological approach?

In August 2008, the Australian Education Union's federal president Angelo Gavrielatos announced the union's new proposal for reforms to teachers' career structure and salaries.

The proposal was that teachers should be able to apply for a newly created career band (or classification) of teachers who are "accomplished". Teachers would be independently assessed against a set of standards, and rewarded with higher pay for achieving "accomplished" status.

Then, in November 2008, the states agreed to new national partnerships with the federal government. This involved a commitment to introduce elements of performance pay ("rewarding quality teachers and school leaders") in return for $550 million in federal funding.

At the March 2009 council meeting of the NSWTF, the idea of performance pay based on appraisal of "accomplished teacher" status was introduced in a recommendation from the Council of Australian Governments' National Partnerships.

The recommendation was narrowly carried, despite several councillors speaking against it. No notice of the vote on performance pay was given to councillors in advance.

This represents a huge policy change for the federation, and it is disturbing that such a big change did not warrant a full report and debate.

Before the 2007 federal election, then education minister Julie Bishop and PM John Howard were strongly pushing performance pay for teachers. They even threatened to withhold federal funding for public education if the states did not introduce elements of performance pay.

One could have expected that such neoliberal policies would have been booted with the Howard-Liberal government, along with Work Choices (which still hasn't actually been "torn up" as the ALP promised). Yet the new ALP federal education minister, Julia Gillard, is also pushing performance pay.

So, what is wrong with performance pay?

First, it undermines the solidarity of teachers — which is the basis of sound public education. It makes teachers competitors rather than colleagues, unwilling to share resources.

The British experience demonstrates this. There, the education system is failing largely because teacher solidarity has been undermined by performance pay measures.

Likewise, the introduction of performance pay breaks down the solidarity between fellow union members. It encourages and reinforces a culture of individualism, of only looking out for yourself rather than the healthy trade union culture of collective struggle.

Behind performance pay is the same neoliberal ideology that drove the Liberals to attack working people and introduce the Work Choices legislation.

The notion of performance pay is an affront to the values of public education. It must be opposed.

[Pat Donohoe is a state councillor of the NSW Teachers Federation, secretary of Canterbury-Bankstown Teachers Association and a Socialist Alliance activist.]

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