The right time to sack a poor performer

"Shut your eyes and think of the children," is the advice TES columnist Joan Sallis gives to governors who have to take difficult decisions. That advice is spot on for any governor who has to decide whether to dismiss a teacher for poor performance.

If you are a member of the governors' dismissal panel and you are called to hear a case about the poor performance of a teacher then there are some key points to remember.

No teacher, or indeed any employee, performs perfectly well one day and overnight turns into someone who is performing so badly that they need to be sacked. There is always a downward slide.

The problem is that sometimes the downward slide has gone on for some time before any formal efforts have been made by management to improve the situation. You could say that in this situation you've got two failures to deal with: not only the under-performing teacher but also the failure of management to deal with the problem early enough.

Occasionally, a head will continue to give an under-performing teacher informal help and support for years, then finally become exasperated and want the teacher sacked. But to move straight from informal support to dismissal without at least a formal warning in accordance with the school's procedures would almost certainly be deemed unfair by an industrial tribunal. It is better for the pupils and for the employee to start the formal procedure sooner rather than later.

It is only fair to the employee to tell him or her exactly what is wrong and to give the person a reasonable time to improve and adequate support.

In normal circumstances, the overall period for improvement should not exceed two terms from the start of the formal procedures.

When there are genuinely extreme circumstances in which two terms would seriously jeopardise the health, safety, welfare or education of pupils, the period for improvement can, under procedures introduced earlier this year, be reduced to four weeks - but for governors alarm bells should ring at this point. They need to be asking why things have gone so badly wrong so suddenly - and they need good employment law advice.

In considering whether or not to dismiss a teacher on the grounds of capability the governors' staffing committee should satisfy itself that the school's capability procedure has been followed. Failure to follow the procedure leaves the school vulnerable to claims of unfair dismissal.

If the case has reached the level of dismissal, then you need to check what previous warnings have been given and when, and whether there is a current final written warning for poor performance in force.

* If the teacher has been set targets for improvement in writing: check to see whether they are reasonable. Often there will be an "expert" witness such as a local authority inspector who can be asked about this.

* If there has been a reasonable period of time given to meet the targets and reasonable support has been given, check that the programme of support planned by the school has been delivered. This is often a weak part of the school's case. The teacher may protest that the support was inadequate or unhelpful and the school needs to demonstrate to the governors that the help promised to the employee was delivered.

At the end of the day, it is never a pleasant task to dismiss anyone but sometimes the bullet has to be bitten. If governors believe that the quality of teaching and learning the children are receiving is unsatisfactory and that reasonable efforts have been made to help the teacher to improve, then it is time to make the difficult decision.

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