Editorial - Heads face uphill battle in bid to oust poor staff

8th January 2010 at 00:00
System is loaded against them in a culture that prefers to excuse than to discipline

It isn't surprising that the profession becomes defensive when the question of teacher incompetence is aired. After all, it's accepted wisdom among those who, to the shame of their parents and disappointment of their friends, grew up to be newspaper columnists that hordes of inept teachers infest our schools. There may be 24,000 of them, or 15,000, or they may have been reduced to a stubborn core - who knows? The point is they are there and, as they unsportingly refuse to wear badges labelled "Incompetent", everyone is suspect, everyone is tarred and everyone feels resentful when the issue is raised.

Do bad teachers really exist in any greater proportions than dud police officers, doctors, or - eyebrows be raised - MPs? Almost certainly not. However, as the GTC has been pushed to throw out a grand total of 12 incompetent teachers in nine years, the public could be forgiven its scepticism about the profession's ability to police itself.

Why is it so difficult to get rid of bad teachers? It isn't, according to the unions. A perfectly adequate system exists to identify weak performers and, after due process, show them the door. The fault lies with poor and inconsistent management. In some instances, that is undoubtedly true, as is the observation that in many cases it isn't a question of incompetence but of the wrong people being in the wrong jobs - or in the right job but for far too long - or simply in a school whose ethos has changed while theirs has not.

However, many headteachers feel strongly that when it comes to rooting out underperformers, the system is loaded against them (TES Magazine, pages 10-17). And so it is. For a start, not only are capability procedures long-winded and onerous, headteachers have highly organised and effective adversaries in the teaching unions. A prolonged fight is always on the cards.

Most heads in state schools, on the other hand, have to rely for HR support on the local authority, which is untroubled by the day-to-day annoyances of poor performers but very much exercised by the prospect of potentially expensive employment tribunals. LA interests are not always the same as the head's.

Finally, school leaders have to work within an environment that is naturally collegial. Education is a shared endeavour. Pinpointing mediocrity can feel like disloyalty. Consequently, heads have to battle against a culture that is often happier to excuse than to discipline.

Is it any wonder that some headteachers resort to passing the problem, equipped with a good reference, to another school? The Government's proposed licence scheme is no substitute for giving heads the power to manage their staff. But in the absence of employment law reform, headteachers have only one option: to resolve that despite the time required, or union resistance, or discomfited colleagues or squeamish local authorities, their chief responsibility is to their pupils. Poorly performing colleagues must be removed. Ultimately, they have no other choice.

Gerard Kelly, Editor; E: gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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