Is it fair to point the finger at teachers?
"There are still a large number of ineffective teachers and they make the difference between children passing and failing." This statement, made by the Government's favourite think-tank this week, was based on new research apparently showing that "poor" teachers lose pupils a GCSE grade in every subject. But for many the language will seem uncomfortably redolent of an era in the mid-90s when teacher-bashing was common political currency.
The left-leaning Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) is not alone in going back to the future with its warning that "poor performing teachers are not being dealt with effectively". Last Friday Keith Bartley, chief executive of the General Teaching Council for England (GTC), called for retraining for a "band of teachers who have more bad days than good", though he later disowned The Times' suggestion that there were 24,000 of them.
The previous week, Policy Exchange, a right-wing think-tank, claimed the system was failing to "weed out" poor teachers, pointing out that since 2001 the GTC had only judged 46 to be incompetent. And in November Sir Cyril Taylor, then chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, was reported as saying there were about 17,000 "poor" teachers in England.
So, are we returning to the days when it was the quality of teachers rather than government policy or the way schools were organised that copped the blame for any perceived failure in education?
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, thinks so. "It has become fashionable to say teacher competence is a problem. But it doesn't do our education system any good if we allow these unfounded figures to run rife. When Chris Woodhead said there were 15,000 incompetent teachers he was asked where he got his figures from and couldn't back it up. The same thing is happening today."
Mr Woodhead's 15,000 claim, made in his first annual report as chief schools inspector in 1995, marked the highpoint of the blame-the-teacher rhetoric. But it was not just employed by Ofsted. The previous year the London Evening Standard ran a story with the headline: "Labour will sack the bad teachers says Blair".
Philip Gould, Tony Blair's chief pollster, later wrote that he knew New Labour had won the next general election when the piece appeared. When the party did get into power there was a shift towards naming and shaming schools with low exam results rather than teachers themselves. And halfway through the party's second term, it was almost impossible for an education minister to speak without repeating the mantra: "Ofsted says we have the best generation of teachers ever". This week, schools minister Lord Adonis's response to the IPPR report was only slightly less reassuring: "Ofsted reports that today's generation of teachers is 'the best trained ever'."
Nevertheless, the Department for Children Schools and Families (DCSF) has been explicit in raising the competency issue. November's Children's Plan said it would look at whether "more can be done to address the performance of teachers who have the greatest difficulty in carrying out their role effectively". That should "include helping them to leave the profession, if appropriate". The plan also pledged to work with the GTC to ensure qualified teacher status was withdrawn "in the rare cases where competence falls to unacceptably low levels". However, DCSF sources insist they don't want to bash teachers but rather build on their success by making it a Masters level profession.
Two other points might comfort teachers who fear another public battering. Firstly, Christine Gilbert, the current chief inspector, takes a more measured tone. She reported in October that most teaching was good. The TES understands that five upcoming Ofsted subject reports have found that teaching quality is generally improving and they are expected to be more critical of the Government's ability to delegate and set the right priorities.
Secondly, encouraging comments have come from the man heading education for the party which is looking increasingly likely to form the next government.
"The majority of teachers want to do the best for the students in their care," Michael Gove, Conservative shadow schools secretary, told The TES. "Demonising them is not helpful. Improvements in education are going to be delivered by teachers, and teacher morale matters."