The obstacles against removing incompetent teachers from the profession are as much cultural as procedural, according to West Dunbartonshire's director of education.
Ian McMurdo said: "Teacher dismissal on the grounds of incompetence, while widely discussed and perhaps subscribed to in principle for many years, represents a major change in the culture of Scottish education and is likely to be resisted, particularly by the teachers' unions."
The Educational Institute of Scotland has told local negotiators not to enter into talks on changes to disciplinary procedures until further notice. This is because of the "millennium review" of the education service which is being conducted jointly by unions and councils and whose first session was due to be held this week.
West Dunbartonshire was responding to the Scottish Office consultation on the subject. The suggestion, which is shared by many in the directorate, that councils have an inbuilt resistance to dismissing incompetent teachers implies that legislative changes demanded by management to make dismissal easier may prove insufficient.
Keir Bloomer, director of education in Clackmannan, said: "While they were undoubtedly deterred by the procedures, the reluctance on the part of the directors to initiate a motion for dismissal also indicates a culture in which involuntary removal of a teacher was seen as a wholly exceptional action. In my view this cultural obstacle has always been greater than any procedural one."
Councils admit that dismissal on the grounds of incompetence rarely happens. The decision by Clackmannan to retire a primary head who lost the confidence of parents and staff (TES2, pages 3-4), may signal a more hard-headed approach.
The General Teaching Council wants new powers to dismiss incompetent teachers as part of a staff development package, but is bitterly disappointed that the Education Minister does not appear to have been persuaded.
Mr McMurdo warned: "If mishandled in any way, an initiative designed to resolve the problems caused by a few could result in an already stressed profession feeling threatened and vulnerable, and the relationship of trust between Scottish teachers and those who manage them could be put at risk. "
Incompetence was not clear cut and was more open to challenge than immorality or dishonesty, Mr McMurdo said. There was also "a significant welfare issue".
He suggested that dismissal should only be considered where teachers seriously underperformed in "a range" of categories. Some of his colleagues believe, however, that major defects in one area should be sufficient.
Mr McMurdo said the test in deciding whether a teacher should be dismissed ought to be the legal concept of reasonableness. "The decision should be taken on the grounds that the member of staff has been given considerable support and opportunity for improvement and that it is no longer reasonable to continue to allow the performance of an individual teacher to damage the education of young people."