Editorial - Gross incompetence isn't the problem - it's the 'am I bovvered' brigade that saps the profession

12th November 2010 at 00:00

Westminster should have teaching's problem. If politics had as few incompetent practitioners as teaching, the country would not associate it with duck houses and moats. If journalism were Ofsteded, the Sunday Times would have to retrain most of its misanthropic columnists and introduce them to facts and the Daily Mail would never make it out of special measures.

It is a racing certainty that the proportion of incompetent doctors, engineers, nurses, policemen, priests, royals and MPs exceeds that of teachers by a country mile. This unfashionable claim has a basis in fact. Teaching is the most scrutinised, checked, rechecked and overseen profession in the country. A grossly incompetent teacher has as much chance of surviving in a school as a Norwegian Blue does in a Monty Python sketch.

Unfortunately, schools face a more insidious threat. Teaching does not have an incompetence problem - it has a mediocrity problem. Education is not being undermined by the truly appalling; it is being sapped by the mildly off-putting. They are the teachers who prefer to shrug or bawl rather than explain, who are too tired to improve and too jaded to try. They are the teachers who expect little of their pupils because, well, what can one do? They are the teachers who have forgotten that those pupils are the reason they receive a pay cheque.

Every head in the country will recognise this type of teacher on his or her staff. They may have been competent once. There may be good reasons why they are not performing as they should. But the consequence is the same - their pupils, their colleagues and their schools are shortchanged because they do not pull their weight.

Faced with these refuseniks, headteachers feel powerless. Local authority protocols vary widely, competency proceedings are too long-winded and employment law is too onerous (pages 28-31). But the problem is as much cultural as it is legal.

Too many heads are sympathetic when they should be ruthless. This is partly because teaching is collegiate and disciplining colleagues isn't, and partly because many heads sincerely believe that they can turn around the most feckless teacher just as they can transform the most unpromising pupils. This is almost always a mistake. If staff won't put in the effort, why should heads? A frank chat about limited career prospects would be better.

Teaching unions will bleat about unfair pressures, management tyranny, Sue buried her kitten yesterday, blah blah. That is their job. They are there to defend the rights of their members. But whining about management "bullying" is a bit like Tony Soprano complaining about too many policemen on the beat. Heads do not have the resources or time to play nursemaid to staff who have plainly lost the plot - and pupils certainly don't. Be bold and get rid.


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