Find the best for the cities

27th June 1997 at 01:00
The pressure is on to hunt out incompetent teachers. The chief inspector started by saying that, on the evidence of inspections by the Office for Standards in Education, there were 15,000 teachers (later revised to 13, 000) not up to the job.

Over half-term, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, David Hart, indicated his belief that before too long we would see judgments on teachers' competence based on examination results. Meanwhile, the new ministerial team at the Department for Education and Employment has signalled that it wants to seek ways to streamline procedures for dismissing failing teachers. The following week, the local education authorities joined in.

Teachers' reaction to what must feel like a new national blood-sport has understandably been negative. They feel that all the failings of the public education service and many of society's ills have been laid at their door. But a fresh government is a time for new beginnings and all those in the education service must address issues of accountability with confidence.

In a sense, the focus on teachers' competence of the past few years is a back-handed compliment. At least the world now recognises that the most crucial factor in a child's education is the quality of the teachers who instruct him or her. Without their nurturing and pedagogical skill, children will not prosper in school.

So we must support any initiative which the Government takes to sort out the mess surrounding teachers' employment terms, particularly as regards competence. Capability procedures take too long, with three stages of warning and a convention which has been tacitly accepted that a term must be allowed for improvement between each stage.

It is a pretty exceptional training and support programme that will radically improve the performance of a teacher who is found to be below par after several years in the class-room. Such programmes can be hard to find: an accessible research base into effective teaching strategies is long overdue, and should be a priority for higher education institutions.

At present, we depend too heavily on the strategy of "learning from Nellie". But we need also to be more discriminating about when support is likely to work and when it is not. Putting teachers through the protracted anguish of a year or 18 months of target-setting and monitoring under the withering gaze of their pupils, who all too often have a good idea of what is going on, is fair to no one.

Far more must be done to help headteachers to cope with capability procedures. For many, they are a minefield. Heads need training in classroom observation similar, if simpler, than that offered to inspectors.How else can heads be confident about the judgments they have to make and to justify about the quality of teaching?

Such training would also help them to set sharper objectives against which performance can be measured. And while we are about it, is it too optimistic to hope that this Government will try to clear up the confusion about the respective roles and responsibilities of head, governing body and LEA in matters of employment?

I do not believe that teachers should feel defensive about this agenda. Their union officials are for the most part adept in handling capability issues, and are generally as committed to securing a fair deal for children - while, of course, safeguardi ng their members' interests - as any education manager.

But I hope that no one imagines that when we have got better at getting the few incompetent teachers out of the classroom we have solved the problem. Far from it. The real issue is where to find the successful practitioners to replace them. Lambeth is perhaps an exceptionally challenging (though exceptionally rewarding) education authority in which to work. We need the best teachers and heads in the country.

Currently, more than a fifth of our schools have a vacancy in either the headship or the deputy headship. Some of the vacancies are the result of natural movement but some are the inevitable consequence of an accelerated inspection programme which put more than a dozen schools into special measures.

For the most part, it has to be in the children's interest for heads to go if they have even unwittingly been part of a school's decline - and the same applies to classroom teachers if "support" does not, or seems unlikely to, work. But we must do more to encourage skilled and dedicated professionals to replace them.

In Lambeth, we have been energetic in promoting the secondment of experienced heads into schools in special measures. We offer good professional development opportunities. We review salary levels with governing bodies to try to ensure that we are keeping up with the market. We even use head-hunters for our stickiest senior posts.

It is still not enough, and we must have central government's help. The strategies being developed by the Teacher Training Agency are sound and will make a difference, but they are for the long term. The General Teaching Council is an essential step to restoring the pride and confidence of the teaching profession, but it does not yet exist. The need in our schools is now, for this generation of children.

We must develop complementary national and local strategies to attract the best teachers and heads to inner-city schools. That may mean relaxing the rules for local management of schools, to allow local authorities more flexibility to fund recruitment packages. It certainly means taking a look at how research and professional development opportunities can be built into heads' and teachers' job descriptions so that they are a contractual entitlement.

Perhaps authorities should be able to offer teachers a limited contract in a special measures school to be followed by guaranteed transfer to another school on successful completion of the contract. It may sound like redeployment, but we have to find ways of reassuring teachers that a job in a special measures school is not a dead end.

Far from it: heads and teachers who retrieve a special measures school should have their achievemen ts shouted from the roof-tops. They will certainly be strong candidates for promotion three or four years down the track, but they need to feel sure of that when they are hesitating over whether or not to apply.

The proposed Education Action Zones are an opportunity for experiment. Let us hope they prove testing grounds for innovative ways to attract, retain and reward good teachers. For those of us in the inner cities, "hunt the teacher" is much more about finding large numbers of good new recruits than dealing with the few teachers in difficulty.

Heather Du Quesnay is executive director of education for the London Borough of Lambeth and past president of the Society of Education Officers.

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