LOOSENING the tight rein on pay for 1.3 million public sector workers - teachers, doctors, nurses and armed forces among them - with inflation-busting awards of more than four per cent that will set benchmarks for the two million other public servants in the queue, the government was today evidently striving to mend the harm caused by past years of pay erosion while looking to reforms to improve the system tomorrow.

The innate belief among workers that they are always worth more than they are getting may be quelling whoops of joy across much of the public sector today - even among the embattled nurses, two thirds of whom will now earn £20,000 or more and whose newly-qualified members get a 12 per cent increase, or from the primary head teachers whose pay goes up by as much as 9.5 per cent.

Past years of falling behind, particularly through the now all-but-banished phasing of awards, may contribute to a feeling among many workers that, rather than being given "real" above-inflation increases, they are merely catching up on lost wages.

Nonetheless, the government's targeting of particular groups of workers for healthy rises and the plan to introduce performance-related pay into teaching and perhaps elsewhere in the public sector are both commonsense and encouraging moves.

For though they will not solve recruitment problems at a stroke, the average increase of 5.4 per cent for nurses, coupled with the 12 per cent jump to £14,400 a year for junior nurses, will help to dispel the notion that nursing is under-valued and underpaid by the government. Similarly, the shortage of head teachers at primary level may be redressed by the special treatment afforded to them in this pay round and the ability of some heads to earn £70,000 in future may start to attract talent which has previously eschewed teaching on the grounds that it is poorly paid.

But it is the departure towards performance-related pay - angering the backward teaching unions which claim it is divisive- that should ensure better and fairer rewards in future in that it will reward the best workers. And the classroom teachers grumbling today at getting a rise of "only" 3.5 per cent should note that there will be little public support for the unions' resistance of appraisal - not when passing it and delivering the standards expected of education will earn the better teachers an immediate extra 10 per cent.

There have always been winners and losers in the public sector pay awards but if, in teaching and beyond, the government is moving to ensure that the better-paid public employees are its better workers then the stimulus to become a winner may reduce the grumbles in future years.

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