Heads to hold nearly all the cards in post-GTC era

18th March 2011 at 00:00
Analysis: With a year until the General Teaching Council's demise, some teachers fear the replacement system - which hands most disciplinary decisions to heads - could be dangerously inconsistent, writes Kerra Maddern

Some teachers do bad things - they break the law, abuse their positions of trust or simply fail to teach well enough. In a profession numbering 500,000 people, it is inevitable that some will not hit high professional standards.

For the past decade the General Teaching Council for England (GTC) has dealt with the worst offenders, but following its demise next year it will be down to individual heads and education secretary Michael Gove to police the profession.

The fate of those guilty of the worst transgressions will be in the hands of Mr Gove, who will decide whether their names should be added to a list of banned teachers. In cases that do not warrant an all-out ban, the responsibility for investigation and punishment will fall on headteachers.

The shift of power has provoked concern that teachers will face a "postcode lottery" of standards and sanctions. So, what should heads and teachers expect from the new system, and are the widespread concerns justified?

Details of how the new system will work are still scarce, even though it is due to be introduced in March 2012.

Heads have not yet been told what will constitute misconduct, or which misdemeanours they will have to deal with themselves and which they should refer to the Department for Education.

Mr Gove last week launched a review of the professional standards expected of teachers. The new standards will be amalgamated with the former GTC code of conduct and heads will be expected to refer to them when investigating cases of misconduct. Mr Gove has said the new rulebook will ban people with extremist views - including members of the BNP - from the profession.

According to GTC chair Gail Mortimer, if heads are not compelled to report misbehaving teachers to an external body, they might be keen to help them move on to another school instead, leading to substandard staff being "recycled".

Heads also admit that not having to report cases could lead to problems. "There are enormous incentives for headteachers not to refer and these changes will completely undermine the regulatory process," according to Tony Neale, who represents the Association of School and College Leaders on the GTC council.

David Lowe, head of Lostock Hall Community High School and Arts College in Preston, is "alarmed" by the changes.

"We are facing a return to the dark ages, with teachers who underperform being passed from one school to another," says Mr Lowe, who is also a member of the GTC council. "I'm not confident headteachers are aware of the implications of this. Our safety net is going."

Allan Foulds, head of Cheltenham Bournside School and Sixth Form Centre, is also worried that without clear guidance the system will run into serious problems. "We need a clear line in the sand to say 'this deserves banning'. Otherwise, we will be put in a very difficult position," he says.

"We need an extensive list of professional standards so every school can behave in a consistent way. The worst thing would be to have a fragmented and variable system across schools and academies, where heads just do what they think is right. We need greater clarity or it will be like swimming around in the dark."

Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, has called for the capability system to be streamlined so that it is possible to fire incompetent teachers within eight weeks.

But he is also concerned that scrapping the GTC - often criticised for the length of time it takes to hear cases, sometimes up to two years - will create problems for school leaders, especially when hiring new staff.

The GTC register, which is currently used hundreds of thousands of time times a year by heads checking teachers' records and qualifications, will go as part of the reforms.

"All that heads will be able to go on to make a decision about a teacher's entire career are references," Mr Hobby says. "This will lead to the recycling of underperforming staff. The new system is very black and white - particularly because the only punishment will be banning. What will happen to the 'borderline' cases?

"Most heads will have to deal with misconduct at some point in their career. They will need clear, unambiguous guidelines to avoid getting themselves in trouble in these situations."

Classroom unions have often complained about the way the GTC is run, but have come to its defence in light of what will replace it. They are unhappy about heads being given too much power and the DfE having ultimate say over whether a teacher's career should come to an end.

"Although there have been issues around the GTC at least it's been a voice for the profession and we very much welcome that," says NUT assistant secretary Amanda Brown. "The GTC has been willing to listen to the teaching profession, and staff have an impressive range of experience and expertise.

"Should only civil servants be part of the disciplinary process, there will be less understanding of the circumstances around conduct.

"It is important that issues of capability and competence are not purely decided at school level, as it will lead to a lack of consistency and a postcode lottery. This lack of regulation could lead to more teachers taking their cases, particularly unfair dismissal, to employment tribunals."

NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates, an outspoken critic of the GTC, says that leaving decisions on misbehaving teachers to be made locally is "wrong on many levels".

"I find it very hypocritical that Michael Gove says he wants a high-quality teaching profession, but at the same time doesn't want it to have a proper regulatory body," she says.

"There are hugely variable practices around the country. If a teacher is not referred, they have no chance of getting an independent decision about their dismissal.

"We see many examples of headteachers sacking teachers recklessly. Nobody will be testing their judgment. This also puts schools in the middle if there is litigation. It's appalling."

However, not everyone agrees that Mr Gove's decision will be bad news for teachers. Specialist lawyers contacted by The TES question whether teachers will be more likely to suffer under the revamped system.

Joanna Lada-Walicki, partner and head of the schools team at Barlow Robbins solicitors, says the new scheme will be "straightforward", but doesn't believe it will be cheaper to run.

"I can't see that there will be any cost savings - the easiest approach would have been to streamline the existing GTC," she says. "But I don't think teachers will be disadvantaged."

And David Smellie, from law firm Farrer amp; Co, agrees that the changes will lead to quicker misconduct cases.

"Under the current system it typically takes something like 18 months to go from the start to the end of a capability process," he told MPs in evidence during the committee stage of the Education Bill currently going through Parliament. "That in itself has been one factor in headteachers not being willing to go down that route."

Requiring schools to refer teachers to the GTC acted as a disincentive to raise performance issues in the first place, Mr Smellie said.

"There is a natural human reaction to think: 'I may be sacking this person, but I don't necessarily want to remove their career in its entirety,'" Mr Smellie added

Also coming out in favour, perhaps surprisingly, has been the independent sector. Judith Fenn, head of schools services for the Independent Schools Council (ISC), says private schools are happy to be involved in a national system for the first time.

The ISC expects regulatory cases referred to the education secretary to be organised in a very different way from currently. "There will need to be a very clear structure for hearings, and much more evidence considered than at the moment," Ms Fenn says.

"There will be fewer hearings; the stakes will be far higher so they will need to be considered in far more detail and complexity."

With more teachers coming under the scrutiny of the secretary of state, Mr Gove will have to ensure that the system is sound if he is to win their confidence.

He will also have to make sure that heads are fully prepared for what is expected of them.

Since taking office, Mr Gove has spoken a great deal about wanting to empower professionals - this move gives heads considerable new powers over their staff.

GTC - Languishing in limbo land until 2012

The GTC has been in a state of limbo for the past eight months since Michael Gove announced its closure.

It is still carrying out its regulatory role, but will be abolished in March 2012.

After its closure, powers to investigate cases will be handed to the education secretary, although he has made clear that heads will deal with all but the most serious cases.

In the past, the GTC has also campaigned against what it believes is excessive testing of children and the administrative burden on heads.

The GTC itself wanted reform, with clearer distinctions made between its research and regulation functions.

Mr Gove called for the body to be abolished in one of his first acts as secretary of state. It followed the GTC's decision not to strike off a teacher with links to the BNP, who had been accused of using a school computer to post racist material on a website.

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