A licence to tick boxes or a tool to cut the wheat from the chaff?

10th July 2009 at 01:00
Just when ministers seemed to have espoused the cause of whole-school improvement rather than blaming failings on the workforce, along comes an eye-catching piece of policy-making that, some say, suggests the opposite. Kerra Maddern reports

Is it a headline soundbite or a revolutionary gesture? An iron fist or a clever selection procedure?

As yet another aspect of school life is centralised, is the new licence to teach a depressing insight into the Government's poor opinion of teachers or merely a friendly gesture to ensure they receive the training to which they are entitled?

Ministers have presented the licence as part of the the ongoing efforts of the Department for Children, Schools and Families to make teaching an ever-more skilled masters-level profession. But critics have warned that the licence scheme could turn into a tick-box exercise that inflicts added levels of stress to an already-stressed workforce.

It has also, once again, raised the question of incompetent teachers - just when ministerial focus appeared to have shifted towards whole-school improvement and away from blaming performance failure on the workforce.

The thinking behind the licensing scheme is unclear: is it intended to weed out bad teachers; is it another attempt to micro-manage local services; is it designed to provide yet another health check on schools; or is it a means of ensuring that headteachers provide adequate training for their staff? We won't know for sure until the final details of the scheme are known.

According to many observers, training is the most pressing problem for those intent on raising standards. There is a huge variation in the sums spent by schools on continuing professional development. Some heads shell out as little as 0.25 per cent of their budgets while others splash out up to 15 per cent. And this variation in spend is precisely why some critics argue that the licence scheme will not work unless there are improvements to CPD provision and rules.

In addition, many in the profession claim that the checks and balances already in the system provide heads with powers that are more than adequate to clear out teachers who are not up to the job.

But since 2001, the General Teaching Council has judged only 46 teachers to be incompetent, leaving many observers wondering if the watchdog is doing its job correctly - and if schools are making too few referrals to the council. Currently, incompetent teachers are usually referred to the GTC only when they are dismissed for reasons related to misconduct or incompetence, or where they resign before being sacked.

There are other disciplinary routes available to heads seeking to sort the wheat from the chaff. These include competency procedures (see box), although heads say that these are slow to achieve results. They also report that they find them difficult to use for personal reasons - it can be awkward to performance-manage staff with whom they may have worked closely.

Local authorities have been accused of showing insufficient support to school leaders who want to get rid of staff. But new schools minister Vernon Coaker has argued that the competency regulations are sufficiently stringent - and so do councils.

Ivan Ould, chairman of the National Employers' Organisation for School Teachers, which negotiates with teachers' unions on conditions of service, takes the side of those opposed to the Government's new system, saying he cannot see the point in the new licence. He says his members have no issue with the existing procedures, which he believes are working well.

"Schools are perfectly able to monitor their own staff and using competency is a thorough procedure," said Mr Ould, a former headteacher.

"If the aim is to improve the workforce, the combination of continuing professional development and competency is most effective. In a good school, a head knows his staff well and is aware of who is causing concern and they can take their own action."

Mr Ould is worried that the licence, with its "snapshot" assessment of a teacher's work, could be unfair to some. He believes its introduction will lead to increased union activity in schools as teachers appeal against the judgments of headteachers, who will have primary responsibility for the licences.

"What happens if they (the teachers) are ill on the day of assessment and under-perform, or if they want to challenge heads - will the grievance procedures be good enough?" he said.

"If there are personality conflicts, will checks and balances ensure fairness? Five years is also a long time. Would you want an incompetent or under-qualified teacher working without any action for that long?

"With this licence, governors will lose some of their responsibilities and this shows the Government thinks devolving more power to schools hasn't worked. The licence to me just looks like something designed for a headline soundbite."

Unions are also concerned that rogue heads will use the licensing scheme as a piece of weaponry to get rid of teachers they simply dislike rather than as an opportunity to provide their staff with extensive professional development.

John Bangs, head of education at the NUT, believes that a small number of school leaders might abuse their new powers.

"I think most heads are trying to adopt an inclusive approach and attempting to bring out the best of their staff and students," he said. "But I think introducing licensing is the last thing the Government should be doing. You can't enforce entitlement - you need to motivate. You can't impose change unless (you are) changing working conditions."

He said the NUT wants to see more spending on continuing professional development and opportunities for teachers to take sabbaticals. He argues that this could be funded with the cash saved by the demise of National Strategies announced in the education white paper.

John Howson, of Education Data Services, is also concerned that the powers invested in the new licence system might be used wrongly. He believes that heads concerned about a teacher's performance tend to employ them on a fixed-term contract or "bully them out" of the school.

"They (the heads) might create a climate where the member of staff would want to leave; I'm sure a lot of that goes on," he said.

"But people forget the whole process of education is about learning - even for the teacher - so it's very hard for heads to harden their heart and say they are not going to bother with someone."

Nick Weller, head of Dixons City Academy in Bradford, agrees. He sees the licence as "just another layer of bureaucracy".

"The Government seems to want to micromanage people from the top, but they keep on putting new layers in education systems without replacing the old ones. This means it's hard for new initiatives to work," Mr Weller said.

"Realistically, this licence is only going to affect a small minority. Nobody wants incompetent teachers in schools, but I can't see how this is going to help. There will obviously be appeals if you deny someone a licence."

Professor Howson says issues around incompetence are usually explained by increasing numbers of teachers being asked to work outside their field - for example, to cover a subject that is not their specialism. He argues that contracts should be more detailed and that these could then be used in defence when teachers are accused of poor performance.

A new research project will also ensure that the issue of competency stays on the agenda this year. Commissioned jointly by the GTC and the DCSF, it aims to find out why there is such a "variable pattern" of referrals to the council.

Staff from the National Centre for Social Research will examine the approaches adopted by schools when considering a teacher's competence, and when and why they decide to go to the GTC. Recommendations for change will be made in the autumn.

It is unclear if we are entering a new era of teacher criticism to accompany the current enthusiasm for singling out "failing" schools. But most commentators agree that the odds on the licence scheme resulting in a cull of the profession look pretty long.


There has never been - and there is unlikely to be in the future - an accurate figure for the number of incompetent teachers working in English schools. Perhaps the best judges are Ofsted inspectors, and they calculate that 5 per cent of teachers are poor performers.

While there is less teacher-bashing today than in the past, there is no shortage of critics keen to raise concerns about the quality of the workforce.

The Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank says "poor" teachers lose pupils a GCSE grade in every subject. Meanwhile, GTC chief executive Keith Bartley has called for retraining of a "band of teachers who have more bad days than good".

Policy Exchange, a right-wing think-tank, claims the system is failing to "weed out" poor teachers, pointing out that since 2001 the GTC had only judged 46 to be incompetent. Sir Cyril Taylor, former chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, is reported to have claimed that there are approximately 17,000 "poor" teachers in England.

Much of this debate was triggered by former chief schools inspector Chris Woodhead, who famously asserted in his first annual report in 1995 that there were 15,000 incompetent teachers.

Capability procedures

Current guidelines on capability procedures have been in place since 2000.

They say that if serious weaknesses are identified in the performance of a teacher or headteacher they should cease to be subject to a school's performance-management arrangements and capability procedures should be used instead.

These start informally, with support, counselling and advice. But if there is a lack of improvement, the teacher will be set targets and observed for up to two terms. If the situation remains unchanged, they receive a final warning. If there is still no improvement after this, they can be fired.

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