When accusations of staff incompetence start flying around a school, the headteacher can come under as much stress as the teacher who is failing. The findings of the Teaching Competence Project at Exeter University show that heads feel vulnerable and isolated when dealing with staff who are apparently not up to the job.
Professor Ted Wragg, the project's director, told The TES: "A number of heads said that back in the old days, local authorities did it all and took all the flak but now they're on our own."
Many were worried about slipping up on a procedural matter and triggering claims for constructive or unfair dismissal. They were uncomfortable with the new fast-track capability procedure (the regulations that govern teachers' employment), which in extreme cases can lead to a teacher's dismissal in four weeks. And they were sensitive to criticism that they might have allowed a problem to fester until it warranted such action.
The 684 headteachers who completed questionnaires had all had to deal with cases of alleged incompetence during the previous 10 years. Several said that, in the light of experience, they wished they had taken action as soon as problems had been identified. "I should have acted more robustly earlier on. The softly-softly approach did not work," said one.
But the heads who did back-pedal probably had good reason to steer clear of the legal minefield of formal capability proceedings. Only one third had received any training in how to deal with incompetence, although nearly all said they wanted such training. But expertise in the legal aspects of managing capability is scarce.
Gareth James, head of the National Association for Head Teachers' professional advice department, is regularly asked to speak about the model capability procedure which was hammered out by the teacher unions, governors' associations and local education authorities and forms the basis of the procedures all schools had to adopt last September.
"There is certainly a need for training," he said. "My presentations have been well received by the members because the local authority in those cases had not provided any training and they were the first opportunity the members had had to discuss the procedure in any great detail."
Staff performance problems are often swept under the carpet or mishandled. But Maureen Cooper, a director of Education Personnel Management, a Cambridgeshire consultancy, believes that the collegiate culture in schools makes it difficult for managers to talk about colleagues' performance.
She criticises much of the training available for heads for failing to address this issue and focusing on the curriculum at the expense of staff management. "When you think about what's really important in education, it's the quality of teaching and learning," says Ms Cooper. "How does the headteacher influence that most? By managing the staff properly."
But things could be changing. On the face of it, the national standards underpinning the Teacher Training Agency's qualifications for heads do not seem to say very much about managing staff performance. Management, including employment law, is just one part of one of the 16 areas listed in the knowledge and understanding section of the standards.
However, the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) includes a module on leading and managing staff, which covers performance management policies and procedures. A case study where capability is an issue forms part of candidates' assessment in this key area.
Take-up of the NPQH by aspiring heads has so far been disappointing. But if it improves, the next generation of heads could find that dealing with alleged incompetence is less of a strain.
* The findings of the Teaching Competence Project will be reported in the book Failing Teachers? by E.C. Wragg, G.S. Haynes, C.M. Wragg and R.P. Chamberlain to be published by Routledge in September 1999