Editorial: Staff development is the key to better teaching

8th August 1997 at 01:00
There is no place for incompetent teachers. Everyone agrees about that, and the Government wants to tackle the problem. Which is where difficulties immediately start, since the need to protect vulnerable teachers has to be weighed against the rights of pupils, parents and colleagues.

It is worth stating therefore that the first victims of incompetence are the incompetents themselves. They are almost certainly unhappy, whether young misfits who should never have embarked on a teaching career or older men and women who have become disillusioned and displaced. No spectacle is worse in school than that of a teacher who cannot command the respect of a class and whose ability to impart knowledge is lost through persistent indiscipline. When that happens period after period throughout the week, only a sadist can hold back sympathy for the teacher and only a masochist teacher does not yearn for an answer to his or her problems.

In many cases therefore the issue of incompetence is not one in which a teacher is put on the defence against career-wrecking allegations. Let us assume that in a better world there was more adequate "staff development". Appraisal interviews for most teachers would then concentrate either on possible promotion avenues following acquisition of in-service qualifications or on reinforcing the message that they are doing good work which is valued by employers, colleagues and pupils. The notion of appraisal as the first step towards the door would have vanished. But for a very small number of teachers - not the 15,000 UK-wide or a notional 1,500 in Scotland, as Chris Woodhead of OFSTED calculates - the outcome of appraisal would be negative. Finding an honourable exit would become the priority.

If the education system had reached that level of sophistication, the Government's proposals circulated last week would make sense. Local authority employers and other educational interests have been asked how best to deal with incompeten ts. The current position is undoubtedly unsatisfactory. It is cumbersome to the point of impossibility to prove incompetence and take action. The world of business cannot understand the constraints, and even among professions teaching is peculiarly protected.

But the difficulties begin with the absence of encouragement to analyse problems and perform better. The time set aside for professional development is tokenistic and unfocused. So the teacher unions, which have no desire to buttress inefficiency, also have no alternative but to protect the interests of members the system has short-changed.

When it comes to dismissal only the employer should have the right to terminate a contract. It is not the business of the General Teaching Council. Nor should dismissal by an employer lead to the presumption that GTC registration is withdrawn. A teacher who is a misfit in one place might flourish elsewhere. There is a difference between automatically striking off a teacher convicted in the courts or a doctor guilty of neglecting a patient and assuming that an employer's judgment is infallible.

The GTC does have a role with serving teachers. It should be the instigator and validator of qualifications leading to promotion. For headships necessary possession of appropriate training is in the offing. But for all teachers, 35 or 40 years' service requires more than grinding personal commitment. There ought to be benchmarks and signposts, and not all of them reserved for those in the promotion stakes.

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