Not many professions are held in such high regard as teaching. People, by and large, recognise that few jobs are so demanding and offer so relatively little in financial reward. All the more surprise, therefore, that a Herald-Digipoll survey this week revealed that a clear majority are now happy to disregard the adamant view of the teachers' unions and support performance pay for the profession.
People, it seems, have become increasingly aware of the important role that excellent teachers play in pupil achievement, and believe that must mean they should be rewarded accordingly.
The Education Minister, Hekia Parata, seems reluctant to acknowledge this. She says she broadly supports pay on merit, but appears fixated on its shape and how long it would take to introduce. She talks, instead, of developing a more comprehesive appraisal system to identify outstanding teachers, so the practice could be shared more widely.
This faint-heartedness must be music to the ears of the teacher unions. They would be quite content to ignore popular opinion and continue with a national bargaining system that rewards experience and responsibilities, not measures of excellence. They suggest the latter would be extraordinarily problematic, create divisiveness in the profession and lower teacher morale.
Fortunately, MPs on Britain's education select committee are less timid. In a report released this week, they said teachers' pay should be more closely tied to the value they add to pupils' performance, so the best were rewarded while the weakest were discouraged from staying in the profession. They urged the Cameron Government to develop proposals for a pay system that rewarded teachers who added the "greatest value" to pupil performance. Whatever the practical and political difficulties in this, they said, the value of an outstanding teacher was so great that these must be overcome.
Britain has already gone a short way down this path. Under a scheme introduced by the previous Labour Government, teachers at the top of the existing nine-point salary scale can increase their pay with merit-based rises. Research at Bristol University found this had improved pupil results significantly, enough for the select committee to recommend a far more comprehensive system that would reward fine young teachers.
There is no doubt that agreement on measures of excellence presents an obstacle to pay on merit, probably an insuperable one for national negotiations. But it would provide little difficulty if left to school principals and their boards. The boards become well acquainted with the work of individual teachers, while principals must know which of their teachers are doing the most to improve the achievements of their pupils. As much as been confirmed by American research that found principal evaluations, in tandem with exam gains, were a reliable guide for identifying high and low-performing teachers.
Throughout its first term, the Government showed little interest in challenging teachers' national pay negotiating system. The new minister's statement offers little hope of change, and little encouragement to excellent teachers who continue to feel undervalued. Paradoxically, Labour Party leader David Shearer may have given a stronger signal when he talked earlier this year of acting against the "bad teachers in our classrooms". The findings of the Herald-Digipoll survey should provide the requisite backbone for politicians of all shades. As should the way in which education will suffer until excellence in teaching is recognised.