Fifteen years after Woodhead called 15,000 teachers incompetent, the claim is back on Panorama

9th July 2010 at 01:00
Unions outraged by BBC current affairs flagship's `recycled' condemnation of unsackable staff

Teaching unions have reacted angrily to a documentary claiming that there are thousands of unsackable and incompetent teachers in Britain's schools.

A BBC Panorama programme claimed this week that the country is failing to face up to the problem of around 15,000 teachers who could be "ruining" children's lives.

It said headteachers are too afraid to admit they have a problem with poor staff, and that competency proceedings are too complex to have teachers sacked.

The General Teaching Councils in the UK are also failing to strike off underperforming staff, it said.

The claims - down to the exact figure - echo the charge first made on the very same programme back in 1995 by Ofsted's then chief inspector Chris Woodhead.

But teaching unions, which have been partly blamed for perpetuating the problem by negotiating good references for poor teachers, reacted angrily to the programme as "tabloid journalism".

The Teacher Support Network, which runs a hotline for teachers facing problems, has said weak teachers should not be attacked, but supported to do a better job.

Others argued that the problem of incompetent teachers is a distraction, when the country should be focusing on the problems caused by an over- politicised education system, destroyed by over-testing.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said there were now "few places to hide" poor performance.

"Teachers in England are already subject to some of the most intensive and restrictive accountability in the developed world," she said. "There are few places to hide poor performance and schools have the power to hire and fire staff."

Ms Bousted said the figure of 15,000 incompetent teachers was "dubious" and the same numbers were "recycled whenever it suits the agenda to attack the profession".

Chris Keates, general secretary of teaching union the NASUWT, said claims of thousands of incompetent teachers were "unfounded and irresponsible".

Julian Stanley, chief executive of the Teacher Support Network, said: "Some of the teachers who have been labelled as `bad' are simply lacking skills and experience. With advice from one of our trained coaches, many can go on to have very successful, rewarding careers in education."

Voice, the smallest teaching union, said programme makers were missing the point, claiming that the problem of asbestos in schools was far more serious than poor teachers.

The programme also set the TES Forums alive with debate (see panel). Some teachers pointed out that poor teachers are indeed a problem, but others stressed that there were more urgent issue in schools.

One member wrote: "What about the more pressing issue of (children) having their education ruined by the rubbish behaviour of fellow students?

"What about their education being ruined by being made to do pointless qualifications just to bump the school up the league tables?"

TV Review: Way to knock `em when they're down

BBC Panorama: Can I Sack Teacher?

BBC One, Monday July 5, 8.30pm

Is it ok for a teacher to allow her pupils to kick each other to the tune of `Kung Fu Fighting' in a PE lesson?

This gloom-laden new BBC Panorama programme, investigating the alleged "15,000 incompetent teachers" in the UK, suggested not.

It cited the General Teaching Council for England's (GTC) failure to strike teacher Karen Thomas off the teaching register for the kung fu incident as "evidence" that the organisation is failing to weed out poor teachers.

But it doesn't mention that the GTC also found that the newly qualified teacher's school failed to help her improve her control over unruly classes.

In fact, the programme scrapes around everywhere for evidence that thousands of children's lives are being "ruined" by rogue teachers, recycled from school to school.

We are shocked by revelations that one teacher, loose in the nation's classroom even now, was found to have been shouting in lessons.

Children may indeed be suffering, but the programme itself failed to convince.

Largely it fell back on anecdotal evidence from dour-faced parents, claiming that their frowning offspring were happy until a dodgy supply teacher came along.

"Be afraid, viewers," the creepy soundtrack tinkling in the background seemed to be saying. Since when did parents decide on the competency of teachers?

A survey of Scottish and Birmingham headteachers elicited few replies: perhaps they are ashamed to admit they have a problem, the programme asked.

Or maybe they've just had enough of surveys.

The programme was so unnecessarily dramatic - think Chris Morris's Brass Eye news spoofs - you even started to root for David Dobbie, the Nottinghamshire teacher who apparently sneaked back into primary classrooms despite being banished by the GTC.

Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools who initiated the debate as early as 1995, quoting the "15,000 incompetent teachers" figure, was somewhat predictably interviewed as a talking head. It was good to see his views haven't changed.

A scrappy graph on a whiteboard, drawn by researcher Simon Burgess, then explained that children would get better grades if the bottom five per cent of teachers were struck off.

Ignoring other possible causes of a poor education, the programme then had a dig at the unions, too. Their attempts to get members facing competency proceedings a good deal are criticised for perpetuating the problem of "teacher recycling".

Yes, let's knock the unions who step in to support staff in need. They may have their faults, but all the unions are doing is protecting their membership, a valuable and important role. And, more importantly, they don't kick teachers when they're down.

TES Forums

`Sacking should be much easier'


I'm sure there are other organisations out there who wish their percentage of incompetent staff was this low.

bonkers 704

The job itself tends to weed out those who can't hack it and they go elsewhere where they (hopefully) can.


We all know teachers with learning responsibilities that they neglect, clock watchers and snobs that think only the bright need a proper education. I would love to make sacking teachers much easier.


A few people in teaching are not suited to it and should not have been passed on their PGCE.

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