Indecent haste?

What are fast-track dismissal procedures for? And how are they being used? Teachers still suspect that these procedures, first flagged up in the Excellence in Schools White Paper last September, may be invoked to railroad those whose "faces do not fit" and teachers' unions worry whether a quick dismissal may whitewash a history of local authority neglect.

A working party will report to the Department for Education and Employment before the end of the year. This report has already been delayed, and some wonder why.

The National Association of Head Teachers claims it has evidence that local authorities have already used fast-track to cover up their own inadequate inspections: moving quickly to sack the head after a school receives a bad report from the Office of Standards in Education.

"The local authorities need someone to blame for poor performance in schools, so they sack the headteacher. We then do a deal with the authorities to move the teacher on rather than have them formally dismissed," says Brian Fuller, a London regional officer for the NAHT. "What on earth have the headteachers been doing that is so wrong yet goes unnoticed during local authority inspections until an OFSTED?" Proposed capability procedures were outlined by the working party report initiated last November by Stephen Byers, then School Standards Minister. According to these procedures, teachers will have two terms to comply with demands for improvement, following guidelines laid down by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. However, in "extreme cases" improvement must be shown within four weeks.

The working party, chaired by ACAS, consists of the teacher unions, church authorities and governor associations alongside the National Employer's Organisation for School Teachers, acting on behalf of local education authorities. This group identified the key issues of locally determined disciplinary processes as being the same as those laid out by ACAS in its code of practice, Disciplinary practice andprocedures in employment.

Although the working party's recommendations are voluntary at the moment,schools and local authorities are preparing tto adopt them. The DFEE, for its part, says that there has to be a way of dismissing obviously incompetent teachers quickly to avoid any further disruption of pupils' learning and any further damage to the school.

"The speeded-up dismissal process that we are working on would only be for very extreme cases of teacher incompetence," says a DFEE spokesman.

"Within the four weeks there will still be the opportunity for the statutory three stages of the process: that the teacher will first be told what the problem is; will be allowed time to improve; and, finally, be brought before a hearing."

These proposals adhere to ACAS advice in general, with the statutory requirements meeting the three-step rule of: warning, second warning, hearing. But existing ACAS guidelines include the advice that disciplinary procedures should "ensure that, except for gross misconduct, no employees are dismissed for a first breach of discipline".

Will the DFEE's four-week procedure conflict with this? If the department gets its way, the Secretary of State will have the power to authorise the bringing of a foreshortened disciplinary process against a teacher. Brian Fuller says: "'Fast-tracking' a teacher should happen within a normal disciplinary or competency procedure only if it is apparent that the procedure isn't working. This shouldn't be used by an authority and governing body to save face. "

Governors, as usual, will have to carry the can. Joan Sallis, The TES's Agenda columnist, says, "As long as it is done in term-time I don't see why governors shouldn't be able to handle this approach, but I just hope there will be a strong appeal mechanism.

"I know how frustrating it can be to deal with people in a cut-and-dried case of incompetence, but it's worrying that this procedure could be abused. Such a process can be used against both the saints and the sinners."

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