Good teachers need more freedom, not just more money

In many professions, 'incentivising' a position is simply a matter of offering more cash for it. We are all so driven by financial considerations - so the logic goes - that unappealing jobs can be made attractive by just attaching more money to them.

Ed Balls is a disciple of this thinking. Schemes to reward and incentivise teachers and schools have proliferated over the past few years, as the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) has tried desperately to tackle the problems in British state education.

Today the DCSF is proposing a £10,000 'golden handcuff' scheme to attract  'excellent graduates' to teaching positions in difficult inner city schools. This money - the equivalent to nearly half the starting salary of a teacher - will be funded in part by DCSF and in part from school budgets. Applicants will have to remain in their jobs for at least three years to receive the money, and the measure will cover more than 500 schools and up to 6,000 appointments a year.

Mr Balls' hope is that this will "help heads recruit and retain the very best teachers in the most challenging schools". Reacting to opposition research which found that poorer teenagers appear to be falling farther behind middle class contemporaries, Mr Balls said that this scheme will help "break the link between disadvantage and achievement". The proportion of pupils achieving five 'good' GCSE grades - including English and Maths - in schools where more than a tenth of pupils were eligible for free school meals fell from 14 to 13 per cent last year. At schools where fewer than a tenth of pupils were eligible, the proportion rose from 57 to 58 per cent.

More money will probably help heads retain and recruit some staff. Employee turnover in inner city schools is way above the average, and it is seen by many as a key factor behind poor attainment  levels. Better remuneration for their efforts will no doubt encourage some teachers to stay.

But as with so many of these expensive schemes, it is only targeting a rather small - and superficial - part of the problem. In an interesting quote, Brett Wigdortz - chief executive and founder of Teach First, an educational charity which recruits bright UK graduates to teach in difficult schools - tells the Guardian that "money is only one of the factors that encourages top graduates to teach in challenging urban schools". John Dunford, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told the Times in a similar vein, that schools in deprived areas already have "quite a bit of funding to spend on staff", but that they still can't attract people to come and teach. 

In these days of bold government action, why doesn't DCSF be really bold with our inner-city schools? A pilot program, centered on a few deprived inner city schools, from which DCSF removes most of its and the Local Education Authorities involvement. These schools could then tailor the education they offer to fit the circumstances, rather than trying to overcome the circumstances to dictate a prescribed 'education'.

For many of the best teachers at our worst schools are lost in the interminable battle between their pupils in the class room and the bureaucratic strictures within which they have to function. Forced to 'teach-to-the-test', follow inflexible curriculum guidelines and hamstrung by school inspection targets, many teachers feel unable to teach. More money might indeed encourage them to stay. More freedom to teach how they want might actually help break that link between disadvantage and achievement.

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