'I had to dismiss two members of staff...when I went to my union and my authority, I received conflicting advice'

11th June 1999 at 01:00
The most difficult and unwelcome task that headteachers have to tackle - dealing with staff who are under-performing or not up to the job - is the one where there is least help available. If push comes to shove and you have to sack someone, you are quite likely to find yourself learning how to cope on the job, a fact which applies to so many other personnel matters in schools. As the head of an infants school in north-east London comments: "I've only had two such unpleasant cases to deal with and I was lucky that neither person challenged the decision. When I went to my union and my authority for help, I received conflicting advice."

Nor is there an abundance of written guidance. Until now there have only been two pamphlets published, one from the Industrial Society and the other from the Secondary Heads Association.

However, Brian Fidler and Tessa Atton's new book* does address the problems and offers a positive strategy for heads to adopt. Fidler, a professor of education at Reading University, and Atton, a trainer and former acting secondary school head, believe that unprecedented pressure to raise standards of pupil achievement means that heads are more aware than ever of the need to help poorly performing members of staff improve.

One of the most important factors they identify for ensuring that a situation is resolved effectively is that at the outset the head should have the courage and the determination to see the process through to the point of dismissing the emplyee if absolutely necessary.

Managers and school section heads have a responsibility to diagnose and report under performance as early as possible. And schools should have an agreed set of procedures for tackling under achievement. These should include assessing a teacher's standards of performance using criteria such as punctuality, orderly classes, marking pupil work on time and, much more tricky perhaps, performance in the classroom.

The authors say that heads can usefully ask themselves five questions about poor performers.l Do they know what they should be doing?l Can the job be done by a normally competent person?l Do they have the skills to do it?l Could they acquire the skills? l Could they do it if their job depended on it?

Sacking is a last resort. There are four stages to be passed through before such action is contemplated. The emphasis should initially be on helping the under-performer improve. First you need to diagnose that there is a problem. Then you must agree with the teacher what improvements need to be made. The next step is to provide support so that the teacher can make those improvements. The final stage before the bullet has to be bitten is monitoring and reviewing the teacher's progress. Only if insufficient improvement is being made do you move to a situation where the teacher is required to change job, leave voluntarily or be dismissed.

Enhancing teachers' skills through mentoring, coaching and training courses can help many, perhaps most, poor performers raise their performance to at least a satisfactory level, Fidler and Atton say. Other courses of action could be a change of supervisor, a change of job, a change of school, a redesigned job with different or fewer responsibilities, demotion or leaving the profession.

Under-performance is often highlighted by some external trigger such as an inspection by the Office for Standards in Education or a parental complaint. However, Brian Fidler believes it is far easier to deal with the problem effectively if it is picked up in the normal course of management early on. By the time a situation has reached crisis-like proportions, there are far fewer options for resolving the problem.

Appropriate expectations of teacher performance need to be agreed school by school, he adds. These will not be the same everywhere but will vary and be appropriate to each school. What can be expected of teachers dealing with willing learners in leafy suburban schools may be different from what can be expected of teachers working with reluctant learners in inner city schools.

In the past there has been insufficient determination to improve poor performance, says Fidler. Half-hearted measures have resulted in temporary improvement by individual teachers but they eventually relapse. He also thinks that in the past many attempts to achieve performance improvement have been inordinately protracted.

Atton says that the drive to make schools accountable for their performances and to raise achievement has meant that heads are increasingly concerned about making sure that all their staff are performing to a satisfactory standard. The huge changes in the demands placed on staff in terms of increased administration and assessment have also led to some teachers becoming deskilled. Often it is only when a new manager arrives at a school that the magnitude of a poor performance problem can be judged. It is invariably the new manager's arrival that triggers the start of measures designed to tackle the problem.

The authors point out that for some teachers in their forties and fifties who may not be expecting any more promotions before retirement, there may be a motivational problem. One way of keeping such staff motivated is to change their role within a school. Atton says that generally teachers are very relieved when a colleague who has not been performing well is either given additional support or relieved of their post. "If you have someone who is a weak link then everybody else suffers," she added. "It's a relief to be able to work with colleagues who are all working to a good standard."

* 'Poorly Performing Staff in Schools and How to Manage Them' by Brian Fidler and Tessa Atton, Routledge, pound;16.99

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