Editorial - Panorama: an old story shabbily told

9th July 2010 at 01:00
Teacher incompetence is a vital issue, but this sensationalist claptrap got nowhere near

The country went to bed on Monday night perturbed. Panorama had told it - or at least the 2 per cent of viewers who weren't watching Ice Road Truckers or Animals Do the Funniest Things - that 15,000 incompetent teachers were ruining their children's education and nobody was doing a thing about it. They had reached this alarming conclusion because Chris Woodhead and four parents had told them so (page 15).

"Could it be that teacher incompetence is a widespread problem?" the programme asked. The 15,000 figure, Professor Woodhead pointed out, was 4.3 per cent of the entire teaching workforce. "Now, you tell me a profession where there aren't 5 per cent, 10 per cent, of members who are incompetent ... ". That would be a "no", then.

Rather than let an inveterate softie like Professor Woodhead scupper a sensational story, the programme segued unflustered into its next question: "Just how good are our teachers and how difficult is it to get rid of the bad ones?" It never attempted to answer the first part but it emphatically knew the answer to the second. "In 40 years only a handful of teachers have been struck off - 18 in total." To back up its hunch that the General Teaching Councils were as much use as Greg Dyke on an economy drive, it surveyed several thousand headteachers. Unfortunately, hardly any replied. The reporter, who had cleverly modelled herself on Catherine Tate, admitted they weren't sure why. Were they intimidated, were they embarrassed, were they far too savvy to get suckered into answering leading questions?

As heads declined to talk on camera and officials and ministers refused to be interviewed, a theory formed: was there a "conspiracy of silence protecting poor teachers"? The reactions of union leaders, who had mistakenly assumed their job was to protect members' interests, suggested there was. Headteachers admitted good references were written to palm off duds, "the backroom deals keeping bad teachers in the classroom", as Panorama even-handedly put it, rather than a tactical solution to a strategic problem. Shocking. Imagine such a thing in the private sector? To cap it all, the programme found that only 300 teachers, 0.07 per cent of the total, were undergoing capability reviews at any one time - or. as it didn't put it, 2 per cent of the 15,000 "incompetents". One couldn't help but wonder what proportion of BBC journalists was undergoing a similar procedure. Clearly, not enough.

Can I Sack Teacher? did for journalism what Spinal Tap did for music. It must rank as one of the most tendentious, misleading, threadbare and stupid documentaries ever made. And yet - even though it is easy to ridicule - it matters. It matters because there are good questions over capability and incompetence that can be easily dismissed in a silly programme - and shouldn't be. And it matters because Panorama let viewers go to bed on Monday believing that children were failing because teachers - by implication all teachers - cared more about their own, however incompetent, than they did about their pupils. And that really is appalling.

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

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