The Law - Vexed question of competence

In the late 1990s, the then chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, lamented the number of incompetent teachers. This galvanised the Government. Stephen Byers, the schools minister, called on teacher union leaders to help him draw up clear and consistent national capability procedures.

The story runs that however much the union leaders might have agreed with the principle, they could not agree the detail. Exasperated, the minister is said to have walked into one of the interminable meetings and told the group that if they did not reach agreement by lunchtime, he would tell the press that the unions were reluctant to get rid of incompetent teachers. They all signed up by noon. It is probably apocryphal, but it is true that the unions did agree in 2000 to a set of transparent procedures that could be recommended to all schools and local authorities.

The principle behind them was that no incompetent teacher should remain in the job longer than two terms from the date their lack of competence was detected. There is also a shorter timescale of four weeks for more serious cases.

Good management, clear expectations and appropriate support will go a long way towards addressing weaknesses in performance. So before the formal procedure begins, an informal stage has been built in, through which a failing teacher can be supported and counselled in a positive way. If that fails, the formal stage clicks in.

Here, formal targets and objectives will be set and a series of classroom observations and oversight of all aspects of a teacher's work will be arranged. This will last until week 20, when a formal meeting will determine whether enough improvement has taken place to halt the procedure. If not, the teacher will be given four more weeks to put things right before a final decision is taken on the teacher's future.

Many schools and local authorities, but not all, have adopted this model for all school staff. Some remain vague and inconsistent. Since the Employment Act 2008, which stressed the importance of rules and procedures, schools - like all other institutions - have the opportunity to review their competence procedures and make them fit for purpose.

Chris Lowe, Former head, trade union consultant and chief editor of Quick Guide Publishing.

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