Book of the week

21st January 2000 at 00:00
FAILING TEACHERS? By E C Wragg, G S Haynes,C M Wragg and R P Chamberlain. Routledge pound;15.99.

There is, say the authors of this fascinating book, an inverse relationship between accountability and trust: when trust in a profession is low, the demand for public accountability increases. Doctors and teachers have in recent years been targets for greater accountability measures, and it is by demonstrating that they do not tolerate incompetent practitioners that both professions earn the right to be trusted by the public.

This book tells many stories, from a variety of perspectives, on what happens to teachers - and those associated with them - when professional competence is called into question. From a national sample, around 650 headteachers responded to a questionnaire on cases involving allegedly incompetent teachers in which they had been involved. Sixty heads were interviewed, as were local education authority staff, union officials and parents. Chairs of governing bodies and students were also canvassed. Seventy teachers who were, or had been, the subject of incompetence procedures were reached through a TES advertisement and completed a detailed questionnaire; their colleagues were also surveyed.

Here, then, is rich material for an in-depth report on a sensitive but important professional topic on which there is little hard evidence. Unfortunately, the categories involved in the study are largely independent samples: we hear the stories of the allegedly incompetent teachers but never meet their headteachers. In only a very few cases are both head and teacher interviewed.

Most cases arose from a complaint or from informal monitoring by the head, and the main focus of concern was the teacher's ability to organise and control a classroom. This initiates a long and drawn-out process, first informal, then formal, typically taking between one and three years. As one would expect, the experience is painful, even devastating, for those most closely involved. Four out of five eventually left their post (but not always the profession), while most of the rest stayed and improved.

Most had not previously considered that they had a problem; those who denied they had a problem and resisted advice and support were less likely to improve. Union and local authority officers often strive to defend the rights of an allegedly failing teacher and offer support, but are frequently suspected of siding with the head.

Everyone in this study feels that the principal responsibility of the profession is to the students. Yet the tale is a sad one, and its villain is neglect. Too often nobody is willing to ace up to the problem, and no action is taken until the complaints mount or student behaviour deteriorates. Too often heads step in too late, or bequeath the problem to their successors. When they do intervene, they let the informal stage drag on and are sometimes ignorant of the formal procedures to be followed.

At the core of the tragedy are the words "incompetent", "failing" and "ineffective", words which the authors seem reluctant to jettison. But in my view they should for ever be struck out of our professional vocabulary because they defy useful definition and threaten the identity of a teacher, thus exacerbating the problem they seek to address. We need words that challenge not teachers, but rather what they do (or do not do). There are teachers whose professional performance can be judged inadequate and who require attention, but condemning them is counter-productive; challenging what they do in their classroom at a particular time may promote a more positive outcome. Professional success is more context-specific than many of us admit - and so is professional weakness.

Least tolerant of "failing teachers" are their immediate colleagues, who know the cost to both staff and students. Yet the pain and suffering described in this book is avoidable. Prevention would be far better than (the usually unsuccessful) cure; there are still novice teachers out there who should never have been allowed to complete their initial training. Teachers who show serious inadequacies at an early stage should be counselled out. In shortage subjects, teachers who are not up to standard should be given temporary contracts.

Most of all, a new professional culture of mentoring and coaching is required, one in which young teachers can observe excellent teaching from colleagues, and in turn be watched and supported by experts.

Headteachers could forearm themselves by reading this book, but the deeper message is to the profession as a whole: we must be far more ready than in the past to accept responsibility for one another. Doctors do not have a fully fledged Ofsted yet, but the British Medical Association is defining what it means to be an "unacceptable GP" and preparing the way for regular revalidation, probably every five years.

Will our new General Teaching Council stimulate something along the same lines for teachers? A positive response from teachers to the demand for accountability would help to raise public trust in the profession.

David Hargreaves David Hargreaves is professor of education at the University ofCambridge and joint vice-chairman of the Government's Standards Task Force

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