Contrary to reports, the new 'capability procedure' won't lead to mass sackings. It may, however, help to get rid of the incompetent few - quickly and fairly. Mark Whitehead reports.
It is a situation most headteachers will recognise: you arrive at a new school and it quickly becomes clear that while most of the staff are hard-working and enthusiastic, there are one or two who are not up to scratch.
George Varnava, who was drafted into Ashburton school in Croydon last year to put it back on track, says: "Dealing with those staff who are seriously underperforming is an urgent matter. You need to tackle it head on, because it is not only damaging to the school but is also potentially harming the children."
But dismissing staff has always been complicated, and stressful for all concerned. In some cases, says Mr Varnava, who also spent 14 years as head of Norbury high school in Croydon, it can take 10 years. And in the past many headteachers felt that their hands were tied by a combination of slow-moving local authorities, complex procedures and protective unions.
Education Secretary David Blunkett, a former chair of Sheffield's education committee, has moved quickly to include in his strategy to raise standards an initiative for dealing with incompetent teachers.
Teachers, says the Excellence in Schools White Paper, must be given the chance to improve, including opportunities for training. But, if they fail to improve, "they must be removed from the profession so as to avoid further damage to pupils' education".
One result is the new fast-track "capability procedure" unveiled last month, which was drawn up by a working party of local authority employers, teacher unions, governors and the churches. It stresses the importance of pinpointing the problem and recording the action taken, step by step.
Once a full investigation has been conducted - with the teacher in question being given the opportunity to have their say - either the matter will be dropped or the capability procedure will be triggered.
From this time, the teacher may be given alternative duties or even a different job, and will then have a maximum of two terms to show they have improved. In extreme cases, where the well-being of the children is at stake, this can be reduced to as little as four weeks.
Pat Petch, chair of the National Governors Council and a member of the working party, says: "Difficulties have sometimes been skirted around rather than addressed head on. Some heads are more ready than others to grasp the nettle and deal with incompetence. There are very close relationships in schools, and it can be very awkward.
"We don't want to see this as a punitive exercise, but if someone is not up to their job it's in no one's interests for them to stay in the profession. "
The teacher unions, too, accept the need for action. Eamonn O'Kane, of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, says: "You've got to be seen to be fair and follow procedures that are clear to everyone and which give the teacher the opportunity to improve. But if all else fails, the management has to be decisive."
The outline procedure identifies only the key stages in the process, and school managements must make sure they are complying with existing employment legislation. The procedure is intended to deal with issues of competence - defined as "a situation in which a teacher fails consistently to perform his or her duties to a professionally acceptable standard" - not disciplinary matters.
The working party was careful to stress that any capability procedure should also be set in the context of raising general standards through improvements in the induction and training of teachers; professional development; in-service training; appraisal; and the introduction of performance-management initiatives.
All concerned point out that the number of teachers affected will be very small and that the number who could ultimately face dismissal is even smaller.
The working party recommends that the draft procedure, which Mr Blunkett is expected to comment on before the end of this month, be incorporated into existing local agreements, as imposing it nationally, regardless of local circumstances, would be counter-productive. Nevertheless, it says the Government may want to intervene in cases where local procedures do not meet national guidelines.
The working party will recommend the procedure to its constituents - local authorities, diocesan boards, governing bodies and teacher unions - and report back in a year.
That is not the whole story, however. The working party has also called for legislation which could have far-reaching effects on the relationship between schools and local authorities. Chief education officers and diocesan boards, its report says, should be given the statutory right to advise on all dismissals - and a duty to do so in the case of heads and deputies. Further, school personnel procedures should be based on local authority or diocesan models.
The likely effect of such legislation would be that right from the start of any competence procedure schools would feel obliged to involve their LEAs, bringing, some would say, a greater degree of objectivity and expertise into the proceedings. In the past, however, some heads and governing bodies have been frustrated by a reluctance to act on the part of local authorities. Education officers have not always approached matters of competency with the same sense of urgency as those suffering the consequences of it.
There seems to be widespread agreement that the new procedure will make a difference. At the very least it is expected to highlight the issue of competence and give school managements more confidence in dealing with cases where action is needed.
It will not give headteachers or governors any new powers, and in some local authorities may not significantly alter existing arrangements. But with local authorities, churches and all the teacher unions signed up nationally, it will send out a clear signal of what is expected of school managements and local authorities.
"It will make a difference," says Kerry George, of the National Association of Head Teachers and a member of the working party. "Nothing will change where existing procedures accord with what we have agreed. But it will give local authorities the green light to renegotiate agreements in those authorities where procedures are not as clear as they should be."
Fast-track dismissal: the timetable
Lack of capability is "a situation in which a teacher fails consistently to perform his or her duties to a professionally acceptable standard". It does not deal with ill-health or misconduct. The procedure is as follows: A problem must be clearly identified and given support as early as possible.
The problem must be investigated and recorded systematically.
"Targets" must be set.
A change of duties should be considered.
Performance standards must be met within two terms.
In extreme cases improvement must be shown in four weeks.
Further formal action will be in accordance with local procedures, usually involving oral and written warnings and final warnings before dismissal.
Procedures must be in line with the ACAS code of practice, including complaints in writing, rights of representation at hearings, appeals and time scales for each stage.
Teachers must be told of the concerns and given the chance to state their case before any decision is made.