Snakes and ladders

Speeding up the sacking of incompetent teachers, while at the same time establishing a new breed of superteachers, seems more akin to a game of snakes and ladders than part of the Government's much-vaunted aim to offer both pressure and support. Perversely, however, those shaking the dice in schools may well find that the fast-track procedure which will send incompetent teachers whizzing down those snakes has rather more to recommend it than the advanced skills ladder.

The eternal problem for schools and the employers of teachers has always been how to reward particularly effective and inspirational classroom teaching - when promotional rungs inevitably meant extra administration and management responsibilities. These distract gifted teachers from their core purpose, and ultimately lift them out of the classroom altogether.

There are, of course, the much-reviled excellence points available for just this purpose. But in the absence of any clear definition as to what constitutes excellent teaching or any fair and objective means of measuring it, most governors and heads have wisely avoided them - especially since funding increases were not even keeping pace with the cost-of-living increases mandated for all teachers.

The agreed standard for a new "expert" teacher grade proposed by the Teacher Training Agency promised to provide a systematic focus for personal and professional development and target-setting. With a robust element of performance review, it could have provided both recognition for exceptional talent and a reward for improvement. For the Government, however, it carries the disadvantage of having to reward more teachers according to their true worth.

The advanced skills teachers now suggested by the Government hark back to the old advisory teacher system. Far from making sure that commitment and expertise are focused on giving children the best possible education, it threatens to lift exceptional teachers not just out of the classroom for two or three days a week, but out of the entire school.

And far from providing school managements with a structure and incentive for staff development, it robs them of their best staff altogether. This new cadre is to be selected, managed and have their pay fixed by the local authority. Superteachers would be expected to teach in other - possibly competing - schools, education action zones or teacher training establishments.

Anything which improves the image of teaching in the present climate is good news. But this scheme once again underlines the message that status lies outside your classroom door. Quite what kind of staffroom rating such semi-detached professionals would enjoy remains to be seen.

Since the advanced skills grade promises a new route for career development without involvement in management, it does not even have the advantage of the present promotional system in developing school leadership capabilities. Conceived as an alternative to headship, it would simply exacerbate the shortage of able and willing candidates.

At the other end of the snakes and ladders board, the proposed new "capability procedure" for teachers has Orwellian overtones. It is, of course, about removing teachers who are incorrigibly incapable.

But in general it should be welcomed and not just because it aims to ensure that children - and other staff - do not have to suffer at the hands of the small minority of incompetent teachers for any longer than absolutely necessary. It also recognises the need for improved induction and staff development, and for effective appraisal and performance monitoring to assist in the early identification of problems and enable more humane support for any struggling teacher.

The recommended procedure is not a magic wand that can wish away problem staff. Such things are in even shorter supply than good candidates for headship in difficult inner city schools. It does, however, propose fair but realistic limits on the time to be allowed for staff to demonstrate improvement before moving on to dismissal.

And it sensibly acknowledges that fundamental to any such procedure is a commitment to tackle underperformance, and the need for clearer understanding of the need for proper evidence and adherence to fair procedures. Without these, faster but fair dismissal will not get to first base.

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