8th November 1996 at 00:00
Joan Sallis answers your questions.

Q - This is a school with very few non-white children, reflecting the character of the area. An Indian parent has complained to the governors that her son has been placed in a low set for all the subjects we set in (maths, science and French), and that he is scolded and given detention and other punishments unfairly. She implies that the teachers are racially prejudiced. She is demanding to see the evidence for his placing in sets and some comparisons for other children, and for more detail on the punishments. How much information can we give her? Or should we refuse to accept her complaints on the grounds that we are absolutely satisfied that no teacher here is racist?

A - The second course is not acceptable or defensible. However sure you are about your teachers' attitudes, racial prejudice is so serious an accusation that it must be answered factually. Indeed, I think we all need to be self-critical on this issue and regularly check that we are not allowing cultural differences or language problems to cloud our judgment on ability, suitability for a post or behaviour.

The mother has a right to see her son's academic record at any time, and she must now exercise this right in relation to whatever criteria are used for setting. She cannot see other children's records, but you can show her her son's ratings alongside the distribution of ratings in the age group and the average in the sets he is assigned to.

I hope you can also reassure her that children are given every opportunity to move up in the setting system as soon as their progress justifies it. Perhaps she could be given some special guidance by a form tutor or head of year on how she can help at home.

The behaviour issue is not so easy. Again we must be absolutely certain that children's ways of responding, facial expressions, communication difficulties, which may be culture-related are not leading to over-reaction to incidents.

It will be a lot easier if you have clear behaviour guidelines established and agreed with teachers, so that the relative seriousness of offences is consistently tackled and sanctions standardised as far as possible. These guidelines could be shown to the mother. It is also important that teachers should keep records of incidents so that the facts are not in dispute.

Q - A teacher in our school has been with us seven years without promotion of any kind. This is not exceptional as our numbers are stable and staff changes unusually few. She now says that she has been held back because she is black. A governor is present at every teacher appointment - two for posts such as head of department. In addition, we have a specially-chosen governor to watch equal opportunities who is always present at short-listing, pupil exclusion meetings and who chairs our grievance committee (he has personnel experience). This teacher does not show any special capacity to go further and her family responsibilities make it difficult for her to contribute to out-of-school activities or go on courses.

A - You do not say whether the teacher is doing any more than spread this impression privately, but in any case it is important to respond in some way. I hope all those involved in appointments are punctilious about matching the applicants against agreed criteria at every stage, and that they keep their notes for some time so that - if necessary - they can justify the choice.

I think that someone should talk to her (the head or the deputy responsible for personnel ideally) asking her directly if she has any grievance about non-promotion and bring the matter into the open: it just isn't fair to accuse people in this inaccessible way and not use established open procedures.

A couple of things about your letter concern me. I would hope that every school had some regular discussion with every staff member about their future and how they hope to progress, in the context of appraisal or separately. Career development should be an ever-present assumption.

Second, although many schools value stability, they should aim at the right level of turnover. If they are doing their jobs well, a small proportion of teachers will always be getting promotion either inside or outside. This means taking professional development seriously.

Finally, although I know the sensitivities on this issue and in particular the gender aspects of it, if a school takes account of contribution to school activities and career development activity when making appointments (and despite the sensitivies I would strongly advocate that we do), it should be more overt and not an unspoken reason for passing people over.

Questions should be sent to Agenda, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY. Fax: 0171 782 3200.

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