Editorial - Speedy dispatch of the incompetent minority is no less than their colleagues deserve

8th April 2011 at 01:00

Here is a fact that most teachers may not be aware of: nobody has been sacked in the private sector for years. Gunrunning for Gadaffi on company time might merit suspension on full pay, but even that's doubtful. It's far easier and more convenient to furnish transgressors with a cheque, a compromise agreement and a reference that occasionally risks ambiguity, "She left us as she arrived, fired with enthusiasm", but usually doesn't dare.

Periodically, the media likes to tut tut over schools' perceived reluctance to rid themselves of incompetent staff. But they never appreciate how relatively easy it is to do so in the private sector. Money and functioning HR departments accomplish in days what schools wrestle with for months. Now a poll by the Sutton Trust suggests that a majority of teachers think capability procedures should be streamlined to ease out poor performers (page 1).

Unsurprisingly, the unions are not amused. They warn that teachers should be careful not to wish away measures that shield mediocre staff because one day they could be applied to them. Most teachers, admirably, seem to be more concerned about the burden a minority of incompetent colleagues inflicts on them than the outside chance of being mistaken for a lemon. So, in the week when employment enlightenment has swept through the profession and a rampaging general secretary was turned back at the gates of Derby much as the Sultan was at Vienna (page 5), it's worth airing a few more career truths:

1. Commitment is not excellence. People can be totally committed but sadly useless. Effort and a willingness to make everyone a cup of tea should not be mistaken for accomplishment.

2. Staff undergoing capability would not perform better if they had more support. Most headteachers would much rather support staff than sack them. It's more efficient than giving them the boot. Capability represents the exhaustion of support, not a lack of it.

3. High staff turnover isn't always bad. High churn rates year after year do suggest something rotten. But a one-off ejection of hard-core refuseniks can do wonders for morale and performance.

4. People rarely admit that they aren't up to a job - they claim that it's the job that failed them.

The teaching unions would contest all of those points. And so they should. Most of their members sign up to insure themselves against dismissal or accusation. It is not a union's job to assess which claims are baseless or not; their role is to act as a defender regardless. But that is precisely why their sound and fury should be judged as subjective noise. Only a fifth of teachers think that schools have enough freedom to sack incompetent colleagues. That is an astonishing and objective finding. Capability should be overhauled, and quickly.


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