Ashley Pearce is a secondary school economics teacher in a comprehensive school just outside of Reading. Last year he was elected as a councillor for the Labour party for an area in South Reading. He is also a Reading FC fan and keen reader of educational literature.
I jokingly said to a colleague of mine the other day that teachers should get a certificate for high attendance, like Year 7 students do if they hit 95 or 100% attendance. But then I started thinking; not such a bad idea after all. Senior leaders are quick to come to teachers if something has not been done but little praise is offered for those staff who always do the right thing and just tick along. Just like in the classroom we know that those at the top and bottom end are likely to get more attention. We are told to praise students as often as we can but this can surely be applied to staff too?
As an Economics teacher, the old joke of “it’s all demand and supply” often crops up but I’d say that’s wrong and it’s even simpler, incentives matter. People respond to incentives and to my mind schools often have this the wrong way round. The stick (sanctions) often outweighs the carrot (merits or the like) for students and for teachers it’s even worse. Most pastoral leaders time is taken up with meetings of those students who prove most troublesome; very rarely is a meeting to praise a student called. This provides the unintended consequence for some students of misbehaving to gain attention. It’s often easier than gaining it through hard work.
How many reports are written with the premise of important exams coming up, explaining how students need to buckle down as not long is left until they sit them!? Do these students not realise the importance of them? Well, no, actually. Human beings are mostly driven by short termism. I may have a lovely dinner in the summer when GCSE’s are on but right now I couldn’t care less about that, I only care about my dinner tonight (pork belly and ribs incidentally which will be delicious). Schools do have some remedy for this, but again it is usually on the stick, not the carrot, side. Reports are for those with bad behaviour, rarely good.
So what works? I don’t believe there is a one size fits all remedy to calibrate teenagers or toddlers to care about the school work in front of them, if I did I would probably hold the key to the meaning of life. Everyone and every class situation is different. For me, sweets are good (bad for healthy schools) but amazingly they work all the way up to year 13s. Also:
- Praise emails home for the hardest working student that week, month or term. The hardest working bit is important so everyone feels they can achieve it.
- Clear guidance and instruction on tasks before they start so they have a chance to succeed as no one likes to fail.
- Constant praise.
- Forgetting the last lesson if a bad one.
- Chatting to students about something other than work and only every so often bringing up the IMPORTANCE of exams because you know what, most people don’t like pressure. Brian Clough relaxed his players with beer before the European Cup final (a little inappropriate at schools but the principle is similar). Exams are the same; practice, revise, prepare, but don’t over burden.
On wider education issues incentives are understood even less. There are not enough exam paper markers, you know why? Teachers are too busy, the exams take time to mark and crucially, it doesn’t pay enough for the hassle. I’m amazed when a Tory Government looks astonished when this happens. Tax bankers? No, they will go elsewhere as it’s not enough money. Want more examiners? Pay more. Exam boards themselves are also baffling. There may be a bit of price competition between them, get the cheapest exam board or how many resources you can access on the website but what are schools and teachers judged on? Exam results. There is an incentive for a race to the bottom based on how easy exams could become and there is some truth in claims that is happening.
Schools are struggling with teacher recruitment. Yes, part of it is workload, but the main reason is that with pay freezes and pension contributions rising, the pay has fallen so people are not attracted to the profession. The Government act amazed, as if just because teachers enjoy helping people they do not respond to the incentive of higher pay. I live in Reading which has some of the highest house prices in the country outside of London and this week will argue that the London fringe allowance should come here to help that. I was on local radio talking about it this morning and was asked if I know any teachers that have gone to work in another local authority for “just” £1000 a year more. It’s as if people think teachers can pay the rent with kindness and good will.
This brings me to “performance related pay”. Surely here the Government has succeeded in matching up incentives? On the face of it, maybe, but in practice, sadly not. My school has not fully gone down the performance related pay route and for that I’m thankful. A friend of mine in a school that has tells me of disharmony. “Performance” can be judged in many ways. If an A level subject goes from ALPS 9 to 6 has it done better than one falling from 4 to 6? Are we judged on GCSEs or A levels? We may not like to admit it but some subjects are more difficult than others. Do we judge on achievement or progress? Subject teachers will get pickier about the students they take on if their pay depends on it. The next time a teacher of a different subject kindly asks for a student to miss time out of my lesson, I’m now thinking “no” as I need to pay my rent. With performance related pay there is not an incentive to work harder but to find a way through, because teachers, as well as students, think in the short term.
Personally I’d love schools to be run by economists but then I would say that, if that aim is not possible, perhaps just a bit more thought on incentives throughout the education world is needed.