First, make sure of your ground...

17th June 2005 at 01:00
Patricia Denison answers your leadership questions

I have a problem which is causing me sleepless nights. We employed an experienced teacher last year to co-ordinate key stage 1 in this three- form-entry primary school. Excellent references praised his teaching as being outstanding. He performed well at interview and delivered a fast-paced, effective lesson.

He gets on very well with the staff and the parents love him. However, it is now evident that his teaching is under par and his pupils are underachieving. I have tried discussing this with him and his response is that my expectations are unrealistic, and that I have "got it in" for him.

Where do I go from here?

A teacher can appear to perform well in one school but not another. I wonder if you conducted any research on the school he left. Is it, for example, a high-performing school? What did its last Ofsted report say about standards of attainment and quality of teaching and learning? There is evidently a difference between your criteria and his of what you see as acceptable.

Currently, this teacher is not accepting your judgement. You have to ask yourself why that might be. If he were to acknowledge the need to make sharp improvements in his teaching, your job is comparatively easy - both you and he would be in line; your understanding of quality and how to recognise it would be shared. All you would have to do is to provide him with the best kind of support. That would include the identification of what he is doing well, the unpicking of exactly how he manages this - his thinking, his strategies and his measurement of success - and then to help him apply those methodologies more broadly to influence less successful areas.

My next question is: is he right? What evidence do you have to justify your perception?

I have to assume that you are right to say his children are underachieving.

No doubt you have comparative data from all three classes in the year group, data from previous cohorts with similar prior attainment, learning outcomes and clear evidence of an erosion of positive attitudes. Your first task is to present him with convincing evidence. This is not easy - and I imagine that you have, in the circumstances, some degree of reluctance to confront him. When teachers accuse heads of "having it in for them", it is often because they perceive that they are being treated unfairly. There can be something about their demeanour and approach which smacks of a kind of implicit disapproval. We see children reacting defensively to this type of day-to-day deficit picture which some teachers inadvertently create; and, of course, the children react accordingly - they feel an increasing sense of hopelessness and behave according to this negative view of their potential. You must take a hard look at your own behaviour here and resolve to handle this situation scrupulously, openly and without prejudice.

Present your evidence clearly, but warmly. The teacher has to be convinced of two things: firstly that your conclusions are properly arrived at, and, secondly that you want the best outcome for him and the school. I would have two meetings, and hold them with due attention to time and place.

Don't try to have this conversation on the run; he needs to be released from class, and a neutral colleague needs to b e present, simply to guarantee a shared perception of the outcome. You would do well to lay out explicitly what your preferred outcome is; tell him your intentions - that you want him to accept the conclusions of the evidence presented and that you want to negotiate with him a mutually acceptable way forward. He then needs some time to reflect on what he has seen, and prepare to meet again to discuss some options for support.

The second meeting will give him an opportunity to respond. Hope that he comes to it with a willingness to speak about his feelings; he might well be prepared to put aside some natural defences - it is crucial that his time for reflection allows him to work through the state of denial he may be in. Once this happens, the breakthrough you want will be possible. In fact, I would predict that you will both feel a sense of relief. You've got some alignment, and can now plan what support is needed and how it should be made available.

Finally, and you will only know from the result of these meetings, you both need to be convinced that he has what it takes. If he pronounces his willingness to engage in change, you can be optimistic. If he is still resistant, then you must not flinch from suggesting to him that your school, with its different expectations and beliefs, may not be the best place for him.

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary, near Woking, Surrey. She has been in education for 25 years, 14 in headship, and is a facilitator with the National College for School Leadership's New Visions programme for heads. Do you have a leadership question? Email

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