"Every decision taken should be in the best interests of pupils." This is one of those instructions politicians and education officers routinely give out, but don't always adhere to themselves.
Take the idea of providing newly-qualified teachers with a guarantee of a teaching post for a year. This is an excellent deal for young teachers but not always so beneficial for pupils, or the newcomer's colleagues and managers. If a teacher turns out to be incompetent, a full academic session is too long for pupils to endure his or her services.
Terminating a probationary period is possible, but complex, time- consuming, expensive and morale-sapping for all concerned. It's easier to leave an unsatisfactory probationer in post.
Fortunately, most probationers are competent or better; they compensate for inexperience with enthusiasm, energy and new ideas. But some struggle andor are less than enthusiastic. For them, a year of guaranteed employment is too generous. An incompetent teacher can set his or her pupils back and provide heads with additional stress they could do without.
The year's guarantee of work has also contributed to a drop in the number of permanent posts for teachers who have completed their probationary periods. The present system means some posts which could be filled by highly-effective, fully-qualified teachers go, instead, to probationers who may be less effective.
I don't think the previous system required much fixing. We either achieved good or outstanding teaching awards to gain a permanent post or had to prove our worth through temporary posts. It was a rigorous process which helped to filter out poor practitioners. No one demanded, or even suggested, guaranteed employment.
This is at a time when teacher education is being criticised for being mixed in quality, with poor grading resulting in incompetent teachers reaching schools. In submissions to the Donaldson review of teacher education, some of the universities responsible for training new teachers have admitted that too many qualifying teachers are mediocre and that there is insufficient desire to counsel them away from teaching.
A colleague who provided an inservice presentation for 50 probationers was taken aback by the poor attitude of some of his group: at least six, he noted, were more interested in sending text messages than listening to the useful advice he had to offer.
I recently met a probationer who said he was not a dedicated teacher and only took the option of the guaranteed year of work to pay off his student debts and give himself more time to find a suitable career. Do others like him exist? Yes.
From speaking to parents, I know many are perturbed when their children are allocated probationers for the full year. One of their gripes is that a probationer has a restricted timetable, so classes are usually split between two teachers. This can lead to problems with the continuity and cohesion of learning and teaching.
Yet some educationists have backed the guaranteed year by claiming that it is internationally admired and that the system should be extended through the introduction of a longer probationary period. Speak to informed parents, I would politely suggest, and gain their views first.
The current lack of jobs means that young teachers are having a torrid time looking for appointments. But that doesn't mean we can ignore deficiencies in the system and refrain from offering ideas for improvements which, ultimately, benefit not just teachers, but pupils most of all.
John Greenlees is a secondary teacher.