Whether or not there are 15,000 incompetent teachers as chief inspector Chris Woodhead claims, there are some. And as headteachers recognise, doing something about them is one of the trickiest problems schools face.
On the positive side, many welcome identifying teachers graded at level 1 or 2 as a chance to celebrate success. Jacky Griffin, head of performance standards at Wandsworth education authority, says: "This will be the first time many teachers have been told that what they're doing is good."
But what about the not so good - those graded 6 or 7? The head of one junior school inspected last term had two staff who were already receiving professional support from the LEA advisory service. She felt the new approach to inspection did help with issues of competency. "For the first time, we have an open and transparent set of descriptors that define good practice."
One of this school's weaker teachers resigned before the inspection started. The other - still in post - was picked up by the registered inspector as performing at level 6, and professional support is being built into the school's post-inspection plan. The school was graded "good" but the head feels that if it had not been for that teacher's performance it would have been given a higher standard.
A recently-inspected infant school headteacher shared a similar tale. His post-inspection plan now has more resources for newly qualified teachers, mentoring and support and a substantial budget for improving the school's maths through in-service training. He says: "Thanks to OFSTED, every head now has independent confirmation of what constitutes an acceptable standard of teaching. My first responsibility is to the pupils and if staff are failing to deliver they must be put right or helped to leave. The pupils won't get a second chance."
How many heads face such problems is not yet clear. The chief inspector's claims about 15,000 incompetent teachers have yet to be substantiated. OFSTED declined to produce figures on how many grades 6 or 7 have been awarded so far though one senior official has pointed to the heavy use of grade 5, leading some to suggest inspectors are avoiding the conflict and extra work of grades 6 and 7.
There is little doubt that teacher competence is a rising issue. Research from Swansea University recently found that more than a quarter of a sample of 50 primary heads in Wales rated support for ineffective teachers a "serious problem", though as many were just as concerned about poor staff morale. John Wakeling, Hampshire's head of education personnel services, has seen a doubling in his professional support caseload over the past two years. He now deals with 30 cases across the county.
Hampshire's senior inspector, John Morris says: "Teachers are human beings. Some start good and become poor; others start out poor and become good. The turnover in the profession is 10 per cent and every year another l0 per cent join. It isn't that there are 15,000 bad teachers who have been out there forever and once we've got rid of them standards would rise. This is an issue we have to deal with purposefully, sympathetically and humanely."
But some fear that the confrontational approach of OFSTED could work against attempts at improvements. Heads may be less inclined to point out to poor teachers that they might be better suited to a different career in such a climate or feel undermined if inspectors fail to pick out the teachers causing concern.
Many heads shy away from anything that smacks of confrontation. One junior school head says: "Just telling people they're no good isn't calculated to get the best out of them."
OFSTED says its reports should not themselves trigger dismissal proceedings. As an OFSTED spokesman explains, a bad inspection needs the corroboration of weak performance observed over time by the head- teacher and the LEA's own inspection service. So that the stress of inspection doesn't weigh against nervous teachers, registered inspectors must give the teacher the opportunity of explaining why a particular set of lessons was judged to be poor.
Before teachers can be dismissed they must be given an opportunity to improve with professional support which usually means discussions with the head, agreed performance targets and perhaps intervention by a local authority inspector or adviser.
John Wakeling says that by the time a case comes to professional support there is often little the LEA can do beyond monitoring the situation and advising the governors who are responsible for dismissal.
But according to him, few cases ever result in a sacking. In most instances a deal is struck involving early retirement or redeployment. But he claims most professional support cases that come to his attention ought to have been resolved earlier through mentoring and in-service training.
DEALING WITH INCOMPETENCY
Informal stages include: * Head and teacher agree written performance targets.
* Period for meeting them fixed (usually half a term).
* Meet to review progress after that.
Formal procedures then include: * First oral warning with deadlineto meet targets.
* Written warning follows if targets still not met, giving remedial action required within a set period.
* Final written warning gives final deadline for improvement.
* Dismissal hearing if improvements not made.
* Appeal to governors.