Watching Michael Gove trying to Do Something Radical in education reminds me of seeing a Congregationalist youth leader trying to reason some teddy boys into letting somebody else have a go at the table tennis.
You are half hoping to see him taste a knuckle sandwich but to be fair, he does have a point.
So as Mr Gove heads for confrontation with the teaching unions over performance related pay, I feel obliged to offer him a tactic which might raise a cautious cheer from his audience.
At the moment, he seems to be dreaming of setting national standards for measuring good teaching. And we have all seen too much of that sort of thing going wrong. What about suggesting that teachers should be rewarded for turning up for work? It might sound like a modest idea of performance but it’s quite important if you are trying to organise day-care for hundreds of children.
I do not know the national bill for supply cover for teachers who have rung in to say they have a tummy bug, or a plumbing crisis, or their legs feel funny, or the doctor has written a sick note for stress – which, if everyone does not tread carefully, will be renewed until just before the deadline for an official inquiry; when the brave victim will struggle back to work for a couple of days before going off sick again. Mr Gove should be able to get the figures, though, and they would shock you – considering the money is for hours you already paid for once.
A general rule that a day not worked is a day not paid would be a simple way of rewarding dedication and making it easier to balance school budgets.
Do we want to encourage teachers to sneeze and splutter all over the kids? Clearly not, and heads would have to be able to insist on fitness for work. An averaged allowance for colds, and family emergencies, could be built into the rate for actual attendance and over a few years, good luck should balance out bad. The especially unfit, and the smokers, might come out a bit down on the deal.
The big objection would be that pay by the day would punish serious illness.
Governors could be allowed to make exceptions for exceptional circumstances. Insurers could quantify the risks and offer cover against lost earnings. And on the whole, it is not an unreasonable proposition that professional wages are for professionalism in action, not for qualifications in the cupboard. You do not pay your builder for days he does not turn up. The dinner lady gets a minimum wage, at best, when she cooks no dinners. The permanently unfit for work get even less than that, in invalidity allowance. Why is a teacher who is not teaching worth much more?
Truant teachers are especially annoying because they already get plenty of holiday. But in every profession, as we all know, in between the genuine hard-luck cases and the workaholics, there are those who simply do not try very hard to get out of bed if they don’t feel like it. Often, they do not even realise they are wagging the system. They think everybody throws a sickie now and then.
In some ways, it would be healthier if everybody could do so, with a clear conscience. Even the average five days a week for 47 weeks a year is a bit of a grind. Imagine what it feels like if you have to do it in an abattoir. A switch from salaried full-time contracts to payment by the day, or the hour, would encourage job-sharing and give us better productivity and a happier workforce.
There are many jobs, not just in schools, where four days a week is enough. It might well be that many employers would settle for that, plus a bit of supply cover, if they were not paying twice for the fifth day.
And whatever union leaders say, their members could well warm to pay agreements based on the simple notion that reliability pays and skiving doesn’t.