Heads debate with billionaire

22nd February 2008 at 00:00
Getting rid of bad teachers should be easier, school holidays should be shorter, and putting more staff in classes would improve attainment.

These were just some of the opinions offered by Scotland's headteachers in a debate about the future of Scottish education with the country's first billionaire and educational philanthropist, Sir Tom Hunter.

The debate has been raging over the past few weeks on Heads Together, the online community for headteachers, run by Learning and Teaching Scotland. The heads have been responding to a variety of challenges from Sir Tom (see panel).

Poor teachers were relatively rare, headteachers emphasised. However, when incompetent teachers were encountered, heads felt they should be able to remove them, not just move them on.

These teachers, they said, often had high sickness rates, did more harm than good when in school, and were expert at "playing the system" by claiming harassment or bullying and using "the 'protection' of the unions".

One head said: "It is very difficult to remove a poor teacher. That is why we have headteachers every June operating damage limitation in placing teachers with classes. Too often, it is about the teacher and not about their pupils, who are on the receiving end of poor teachers."

Another, who had "moved on" five or six incompetent teachers, felt that getting rid of under-performing staff came down to the tenacity of the head. That particular head wanted to debunk the myth that "teaching is a meal ticket for life unless you are found guilty of gross misconduct".

Heads also wanted power to fail probationers who "should not have got past the screening process" and who can "destroy the potential of children in their care". They said this was "almost impossible" at present.

Far from being met with horror, Sir Tom's suggestion that pupils need to spend more time in school was greeted with enthusiasm. Heads argued that long holidays led to pupils forgetting lessons and becoming "switched off".

One said: "Schools should have 10-week terms with two-week breaks, maybe a three-week break in summer."

Another argued for "four evenly-spaced and similar-length terms", with teachers getting the time needed to recharge their batteries through regular "sabbatical breaks".

Vocational schools were welcomed. Morag Foster, recently retired head of Ardross Primary in Highland, said: "Let's value the excellence of being able to work with your hands as well as the mind."

Another responded: "I could find a group of pupils (boys) who would jump at the chance of a more vocational education." However, this headteacher was critical of the slow speed of curricular change, saying: "The pace needs to be picked up and clear timelines as to where we are going established."

Ms Foster maintained that one of the best ways to improve the system would be "to put an extra trained 'body' in every classroom".

She warned against following Sir Tom's suggestion that we "compare ourselves with the world's best and beat them". She commented: "We certainly can't and shouldn't compare our results with Japan, which puts so much pressure on students that the country has an extremely high suicide rate."

SIR TOM'S QUESTIONS

Sir Tom Hunter's questions for headteachers:

- why are people applying to train as teachers not screened?

- should vocational schools be developed as the norm?

- is curricular change happening fast enough?

- should education be freed up from political leadership?

- do we seriously believe that formal learning is only of value for half the year?

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