Hold back with the axe
It is a bugbear," says the headteacher. "A member of staff is transferred on to you. There is no documentary evidence of a problem, but then it transpires there have been complaints and difficulties going back for years."
The fact that a teacher is having problems will come to light in several ways. Parents may complain that their child is not achieving as expected; homework diaries may show that homework-setting is not up to scratch; records may show repeated referrals of pupils who cause no trouble in other teachers' classes; classes may simply not be covering the work.
The authors of the Government's latest education white paper, Targeting Excellence, are at pains to stress that "bad" teachers are few and far between. But however careful their phraseology, they obviously see getting tough with such teachers as an integral part of overhauling the profession.
In staffrooms the talk is of hit squads, witch hunts and de-registration by the General Teaching Council - not so much targeting excellence as taking pot shots. Teachers feel that, once again, the minority of failures is overshadowing the majority of successes.
"How do you define an incompetent teacher?" demands Tino Ferri of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. "What are the criteria for competence? And if you have a teacher who isn't coming up to scratch, are you going to throw him or her out on the street after years of service?" Mr Ferri says the emphasis on cutting out rotten wood is wrong. "If morale is good, the quality of delivery of education is excellent. Having staff in terror of losing their jobs will not raise standards."
Barbara Clark of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association concurs. "We have an ageing, highly stressed and demoralised profession. If teachers are struggling there must be a reason, and the Government should help them, not talk about getting rid of them."
When a member of staff is finding it difficult to cope, the burden falls on colleagues, especially the headteacher. Just as a small number of difficult pupils will take up a large proportion of a teacher's time, so a poor teacher eats into the timetable of senior staff.
"Little support comes from outside the schools," says George Ross, general secretary of the Headteachers Association of Scotland. "The local authorities and the Scottish Office need to look at that, and we need to look at facilities for retraining people."
A headteacher who has a member of staff with long-term problems says:
"There is no financial facility to take her out of the class and retrain her." A headteacher will offer support and advice to a failing teacher, but if there is no improvement, none of the options is easy. "I have to balance the care of the individual against the care of the youngsters she's instructing."
On the one hand, parents and other members of staff will deluge the head with complaints. On the other, the absence of detailed criteria of teacher competence will leave a school wide open at an appeal hearing. Is it any wonder some headteachers keep their heads down and hope the problem teacher will go away?
But if a headteacher follows through the disciplinary procedures, at the end of the line it is the education committee of the local authority which must dismiss the teacher. These arrangements, says the white paper, "are cumbersome, unpredictable and can be unfair". Local authorities can be unwilling to get involved in high-profile dismissal cases, and a problem teacher can simply be moved from one school to another, with no one addressing the problem properly.
The Government suggests making the director of education responsible for dismissals, but the GTC is keen to step in and extend its remit beyond the probationary period of teachers' careers. It says: "Scotland has a real need for a seamless garment of professional development that will include initial teacher education, the probationary period and the rest of a teacher's career."
"The GTC should have a role in dealing with professional competence," argues Fred Forrester, depute general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland. "It would be the profession policing itself."
A truly representative, professional body might be the logical choice to support and police its own membership throughout their careers, but there are those who doubt that the GTC, as currently constituted, is representative of the whole profession.
A review of the GTC's functions and organisation is being carried out by a team of consultants. They have been asked to report by the end of April, giving the new Scottish parliament the chance to legislate on what amounts to a boundary dispute between education authorities and the GTC.
Meanwhile, the probation period itself is coming under fire. If people are working in the profession who should not be there, the argument goes, surely the selection process must take some blame. When only 50 per cent of probationers spend their two years at a single school, and when some are submitting reports from more than 20 schools, maintaining confidence in the system is difficult. Not only do many young teachers have little hope of developing their skills in a stable environment, but those assessing them may have difficulty differentiating between a serious shortcoming in the teacher and the inevitable result of a teacher facing his or her third new class in as many months.
"Teachers who have a stable probationary period are more likely to be successful in the long term," says Barbara Clark of the SSTA.
Concern about the probation system has led to the appointment of a development officer at the GTC, charged with reviewing procedures for probation and developing a coherent system of induction, including a standard for full registration.
"For recently-qualified teachers, in the context of a system of continuing professional development, it is right to develop firm and fair procedures for dismissal," says Ken Cunningham, who chairs the professional committee of the Headteachers' Association. "But for long-serving staff, it is a different story. You have to uncover the reasons for failure and put in the support. Many people are being asked to adapt to conditions they could never have foreseen when they joined the profession."