Last week, hundreds of thousands of men and women - some young, some old - took a deep breath (some perhaps even let out a quiet sigh) and stepped in front of class to begin another school year. For some, it will be their first time alone with a whiteboard and children; for others, that terrifying classroom debut will be just a distant memory. But whether these teachers have been doing their job for two minutes or 20 years, one in six is performing poorly.
At least that is the claim according to research on teacher quality published today by the Sutton Trust, which campaigns to improve social mobility through education.
The study suggests that some 64,000 teachers working in England's schools are not performing as well as they should. If the figures are correct, you may be sitting next to one of them in the staffroom as you read this. Three or four low-performers you have encountered during your career may immediately spring to mind. One of them may even be you.
To put the Sutton Trust figure in context, consider the scale of the controversy caused by former chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead when he claimed there were 15,000 underperforming teachers.
According to the Sutton Trust report, replacing or improving just the lowest 10 per cent of those working at the chalkface - roughly 40,000 - to bring them up to the UK average, would have a truly seismic impact on England's schools and their pupils. The trust's research claims that - all other factors remaining the same - tackling the bottom tenth of teachers would see the UK's position in international league tables rocket in just 10 years from 21st and 22nd, in reading and maths respectively, to as high as third and fifth.
The report also highlights the difference between a good and a bad teacher. For example, a pupil taught by a very effective maths teacher will gain 40 per cent more in their learning over a year than a child subjected to the substandard skills of a poor teacher.
Perhaps the most startling statistic in the research is that putting a high-performing teacher, as opposed to a poorly performing one, in front of a class equates to reducing the size of a Year 5 class by 10 pupils. Its effect on Year 6 pupils is the same as cutting the class by 13 or more.
But better learning is only part of it. The impact of good teaching goes beyond international rankings and improved GCSE results. Good teaching also boosts the economy. Bringing a poorly performing teacher up to the national average would boost the lifetime earnings of a class of 30 by between #163;240,000 and #163;430,000 at current values, the report claims.
The move would also see the Government enjoying vastly improved value for the #163;16.1 billion it spends every year on teachers' salaries alone. But the crux of the issue raised by the Sutton Trust report is not the effect of better teachers, but the impact of bad ones. And if there are 40,000 sloshing around the system, what's to be done about it?
Dance of the Lemons
Sir Michael Wilshaw is executive principal of Mossbourne Academy, a headteacher lauded by prime ministers past and present and described by education secretary Michael Gove as "my hero". His school, in east London's Hackney, is literally a brick's throw away from some of the most violent disturbances that took place at the height of last month's rioting in the capital. But when the school closed its gates for the summer holidays, it was expecting to see 10 per cent of its pupils go on to study at Cambridge. More than 60 per cent were hoping for places among Russell Group universities, and the school was anticipating GCSE results that are more usually the preserve of selective schools.
However, just as good teaching can have a profound effect on the school as a whole, Sir Michael says, so too can bad teaching - and it can sometimes spread through a school like a disease. Bad habits, he believes, can be catching. "Unless a headteacher addresses the issue of competence, then the culture of the school doesn't improve," he says. "Good and outstanding teachers see that weaker teachers are not being dealt with by the management of the school so their performance also starts to dip."
Sir Michael's zero-tolerance of underperformance, be it pupils or staff, is shared by many of the heads who preside over the most highly performing schools.
Clare Bradford, head of the secondary Henbury School in Bristol, agrees that poor teachers have a radical effect. "I agree with the (Sutton Trust) research: it's clear there is a tipping point with good teaching. If students get consistently good teaching, they have a good experience at school. And with a good experience of teaching, their performance grows."
Ms Bradford argues that getting rid of ineffective teachers need not be difficult. The crucial point is not to let stragglers drift. "In order to keep your staff up to the mark, you must have a really robust system of performance management in place," she says. "That means a strict routine of lesson observations; if you're blase or laidback about it then you will struggle.
"There are still quite a few schools which just pay lip service to performance management. Your lesson observations will pick up if something is not satisfactory and they will be placed on informal incapability. We would do it quite quickly."
Ms Bradford says she wants her staff to improve. Her management team would work with them and put all the necessary support in place. But, she adds: "We would be very clear about our expectations and our time scales for improvement. We would write everything down so there can be no ambiguity, and when we came back to it and if there was no improvement then we would have to take action.
"But in all my years I have never had to sack someone because of capability. What usually happens is you go through an informal process, you set targets, and if they don't meet them then the teacher usually resigns rather than waits to be sacked."
Annie Williams is head of Holy Trinity and St Silas School, a Church of England primary in nearby Camden, where screaming wealth and abject poverty sit, unhappily, cheek by jowl. Ms Williams puts the effects of bad teachers starkly. "It means the children don't learn anything," she says bluntly. "Poor teachers mean there is poor behaviour management, so there are no role models, no proper boundaries and there isn't that proper social interaction."
Ms Williams said she has removed many teachers from her school in just 18 months, and has no problem with the mechanisms of getting rid of those not up to the job. It simply takes determination. "If you do move them on you have to really fight your corner," Ms Williams says. "But the problem is you have to give them a reference.
"I recently had a very poor teacher, and the reference I wrote was very bland. I didn't even mention teaching and learning. If I received a reference that didn't mention a person's teaching and learning I would be on the phone calling the school up. But no one called and she ended up in a school that was in special measures," she adds.
It is a familiar story. The process whereby poorly performing teachers are offloaded on poorly performing schools is given many names, particularly in the US, where it is known as the Dance of the Lemons or the Turkey Trot. Or, quite simply, Passing the Trash.
Whatever its name, it is a depressing merry-go-round of bad teachers being moved on from school to school until they end up in a poorly performing institution where their incompetencies go unnoticed.
According to most research, heads are largely happy with the legal mechanisms available to them for removing poorly performing teachers. Primarily, they say, the process must, however, be made much faster.
If a head is concerned about the performance of a member of staff, lesson observations should pick up the problems, they say. Support and guidance will be offered, and if there is no improvement, hopefully the teacher will have a moment of clarity and find another line of work. But if they don't, it is time for the Turkey Trot.
A problem downplayed
According to heads' leaders, the issue of competency is less of a problem than it was, and where it arises headteachers have never been better placed to spot underperformance.
"We do not have vast numbers of incompetent teachers," says Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. "Now, more than ever before, we have the best teachers teaching in our schools, and where there is underperformance headteachers will be aware of it much more." He adds: "Classrooms are no longer a secret garden where lessons cannot be observed, and the progress of pupils is much more closely monitored."
Likewise, teaching unions believe the issue of incompetent teachers is less significant than ever before. They say the reason so few teachers are dismissed from the profession is because bad teachers themselves generally come to the conclusion that they are not up to the job and switch to another profession.
The issue, according to Mary Bousted, general secretary of education union the ATL, is less about sacking bad teachers, and more to do with supporting and retraining them through better professional development.
"It is very difficult to be an incompetent teacher these days because the quality of your work is under constant scrutiny and inspection," Dr Bousted says. "If you were an incompetent teacher, then your professional life would be miserable and you would get out. Teachers are not getting the continuous professional development they need. There is an inadequate provision, and where it is provided it is very uneven."
But in light of the Sutton Trust's claims that tens of thousands of teachers are struggling to perform to acceptable standards, the unions' Panglossian responses to charges of incompetence in the profession are, to many, both worrying and risible.
Few would dispute that adequate continuing professional development (CPD) has been distinctly lacking in the past, and many teachers still claim that one of the biggest holes in the current Government's reform agenda is a coherent and comprehensive approach to professional development. It is particularly important for teachers in their third or fourth year, when the watchful eye of the headteacher is often drawn to some of the newer recruits.
But while improved CPD may address some of the problems in the existing workforce, most would argue that there must be better filters to prevent those who are not suited to teaching from entering the profession in the first place. According to some, the answer lies in better recruitment and initial teacher training. Indeed, it is said the quality of a country's school system cannot exceed the quality of its teacher training.
Teach First, the fast-track scheme that places exceptional graduates in challenging schools, has been widely praised since it was introduced in 2002. With just one in six applicants selected for the programme, its competitive selection process puts it alongside teacher recruitment schemes in some of the world's top-ranked education systems.
However, Teach First graduates make up just 1 per cent of England's teaching workforce, and are unlikely ever to have a significant impact on the wider school system. Just a glimpse at the top-performing nations shows they tend to select all of their teachers from the very brightest and best graduates.
Finland, for example, has arguably the most highly trained teaching workforce in the world. Pasi Sahlberg, an adviser to the Finnish government, says that just one in every 10 applicants is accepted for teacher training. What do the other nine out of 10 do? "Oh, they become lawyers or doctors," he says with a smile. Evidence from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reveals that just 5 per cent of teachers in England perform as well as the average teacher in Finland.
But while England may be a long way from Finland in teacher recruitment, the situation is improving. Last year, only 39 per cent of applicants were accepted to study for PGCEs, down from 48 per cent six years ago. Although teacher training is becoming more competitive, Mr Gove is keenly aware that it needs to improve and has raised the entry requirement for graduates applying to study for a PGCE.
Any graduate hoping for a place on a PGCE course will now have to secure a degree ranked 2:2 or above. But for some heads, the PGCE does not offer employers the calibre of teacher they need to teach in their schools. According to them, the quality coming out of universities is still not high enough.
In the experience of Ms Williams, the teachers recruited from the PGCE do not meet her exacting standards. "The PGCE is not great," she says frankly. "In this challenging world, the teaching of English is essential. It should be the first priority and the best quality, and often it is not with the PGCE."
Because of this, Ms Williams has developed a recruitment policy she describes as "growing your own". "Most of my teachers are graduate teacher programme students and I don't pass anybody unless they meet my high standards," she says. "It's about having high expectations. If you have high expectations then your staff will have high aspirations for the students."
Not just about teachers
But the fundamental problem is that not every headteacher has the same high expectations. If there are poorly performing teachers, so too there are poorly performing heads. After all, not everyone is a Sir Michael Wilshaw or an Annie Williams.
Teachers may be the most important factor in pupil learning, but they are not the only one. Looking at test scores gives just one snapshot of how well a teacher is functioning. It does not give the wider picture of a teacher's working environment.
Sara Bubb is an educational consultant who heads up England's Advanced Skills Teacher network and is also a lecturer at London University's Institute of Education. She believes skills improvement lies with school leadership and better training. "It's not just (about) teachers," Ms Bubb says. "It's very hard even for the best teacher to add value to a school that is poorly led. I have worked in some schools where it is really easy to fly, and to be as good as you can be. But I have also worked in other places where lots of things just get in your way and grind you down," she says. "If you implement a school policy when a child misbehaves, but then you are not backed up, the best intentions can come to nothing or less than nothing.
"It is down to leadership," Ms Bubb spells out. "Spotting if someone is struggling, then trying to diagnose the problem. The number of times I have been called in because of behaviour management, when actually that's just the symptom and the real problem is a lack of subject knowledge or because they just don't like children. Heads must invest time in diagnosing the problem and then try to be creative about the solution."
So this begs the question - if bringing the bottom 10 per cent of teachers up to the level of the average performing teacher would result in England's schools being among the best in the world, what would happen if the Government invested in improving every single teacher, heads included? This could have an even more remarkable impact than focusing exclusively on the lowest performers. If we did that, England's education system just might become the envy of the world.
Effective v poorly performing
The Sutton Trust's report defines a "very effective teacher" as one in the 84th percentile according to value-added scores, which are a measure of the impact a teacher has on pupils' progress.
The charity said it chose the 84th percentile because it is one standard deviation above the mean. About one in six teachers would be at, or above, this level.
A "poorly performing teacher", on the other hand, is a teacher in the 16th percentile, according to value-added scores. The authors of the report chose the 16th percentile because it is one standard deviation below the mean. About one in six teachers would be at, or below, this level.
The Government is consulting on new performance-management guidelines for heads.
- In the most severe cases, the school could move straight to a disciplinary hearing.
- Otherwise, the appraiser would provide feedback, give the appraisee the opportunity to comment and agree any support.
- The disciplinary meeting, which would follow if no progress is made, might include continued support, an oral or written warning or a final written warning.
- If the necessary improvement is not made, a further disciplinary meeting would take place, as a result of which a final written warning might be issued or, in severe cases, a recommendation for dismissal.
- The staff member can appeal. This would be dealt with by a manager who had no previous involvement in the case.
THE BATTLE TO BOOST PERFORMANCE IN THE US
One country that is right at the heart of the debate over teacher quality is the United States, which is currently spending billions on attempting to improve the performance of its teachers.
US education secretary Arne Duncan has been handed a budget of $100 billion (#163;62 billion) - double the normal amount - in an attempt to turn the country's ailing school system around.
A chunk of that budget, $4.3 billion (#163;2.7 billion), is being offered by the Obama administration as part of its Race to the Top Programme, which aims to encourage states to identify and cultivate their best teachers.
States effectively compete against one another in a bid to win grants, but the measure by which states try to establish which teachers are working well and why is test scores.
The move has been condemned by critics, particularly the country's powerful teaching unions, which believe the measure is overly rudimentary.
But the unions have also been targeted, particularly in areas such as Washington DC, as popularised in last year's hit documentary Waiting for Superman, which followed then chancellor of Washington DC schools Michelle Rhee.
Ms Rhee was captured in the film fighting to abolish teachers' tenure, which - according to the film, at least - makes it nearly impossible for teachers to be sacked.
She attempted to offer teachers salaries of up to $140,000 (#163;86,000) if they relinquished their tenure, but the move was rejected by the unions. A watered down version was finally agreed linking salaries and bonuses to "strong student achievement" in return for weakened teacher protection and an end to tenure for one year.
It allowed Ms Rhee to fire hundreds of teachers, and put several hundred more on notice.
The effect of poor teaching was best put by Geoffrey Canada, another star of Waiting for Superman and founder of the Harlem Children's Zone, a community-based organisation providing everything from healthcare to education to more than 17,000 children in a 100-block zone of Harlem.
Speaking to TES last year, Mr Canada said: "A bad teacher who teaches (for) 20 years destroys 20 years' worth of young people. It's not like it's just one year; it goes on and on.
"It's even more harmful in the States. Bad teachers can't be fired so they get bounced. They get bounced from good places to weak places. And where are the weak places? Where most of the poor kids, the kids of colour, live."
OVER AND OUT?
A survey published in April, commissioned by the Sutton Trust, showed the majority of classroom teachers believe it is too difficult to sack their underperforming colleagues.
The survey found that majorities of both school leaders - 73 per cent - and classroom teachers - 52 per cent - agreed there was "not enough freedom for schools to dismiss poorly performing teachers".
Just 21 per cent of all teachers think schools have enough freedom to sack incompetent colleagues, according to the National Foundation for Educational Research's survey of a weighted, representative sample of the profession.
But 57 per cent wanted to see greater freedoms, with very similar majorities in both the primary and secondary sectors.