New teaching standards being introduced from September in England will allow heads to dramatically raise the bar on minimum levels of performance, making it easier for them to sack teachers.
Schools will, for the first time, have the freedom to set their own expectations of what teachers should be achieving at different stages of their careers, under changes that unions claim will create "mayhem".
Heads will be expected to use the new standards as a basic framework for devising progressively tougher minimum performance levels. Any teacher failing to achieve the relevant level for their length of service or pay grade could face capability procedures (the formal process leading to dismissal) and ultimately lose their job.
The NUT and ATL teaching unions both believe that the new regime could let heads judge teachers they want to fire against much higher minimum expectations than they can at the moment.
"Schools will say, `This is what we expect you to be doing at this stage of your career'," said Amanda Brown, the NUT's head of employment conditions and rights. "And then they will start moving into performance managing around it, but if necessary going further. They could quickly move on to capability procedures."
The changes will also allow for speedier capability procedures and the removal of an informal, preliminary stage of the process.
Under existing rules, teachers are only dismissed for underperformance if they fail to achieve basic "core standards". Experienced staff on the upper pay scale can also theoretically face capability procedures if they fail to meet a separate set of "post-threshold standards", but this has rarely happened in practice.
Both heads' and teaching unions believe that the new standards could be difficult for managers to use and for teachers to understand because they lack clarity.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it was a "major concern" that standards had been published without an explanation of how progress should be measured. "It is regrettable that every single school will have to draw up their own interpretation," he said. "It could be quite problematic."
But Nigel Middleton, a consultant from Educate Services, said schools could use the new regime to set their own expectations of teacher performance linked to capability, as long as the expectations were clear and properly consulted on.
By September, at least 2,500 heads will have taken courses that Mr Middleton has devised on the changes. He is advising heads to set three levels of expectation for teachers on the main pay scale, with another two for those on the upper pay scale (see panel).
The former head says that the system will make it possible for schools to sack teachers by measuring their work against tougher expectations. But he believes that, in practice, most will want to use it as a way of improving performance.
According to Mr Middleton, secondary schools have an average of five teachers each on the upper pay scale who are not sharing expertise in the way their salary demands. Primaries have an average of one each, and they will now be easier to deal with. "Heads don't want to dismiss those teachers through capability," he said. "They just want them to work a bit harder."
Consultants are advising schools to set levels for teacher performance at every other point on the pay scale, to avoid definitions that are too narrow. Minimum suggested levels in the standards grouped as "professional practice" are:
- Point 2 on the main pay scale: "All teaching satisfactory; much good or better."
- Point 4: "All teaching good or better."
- Point 6: "All teaching good; some outstanding."
- Points 1 and 3 on the upper pay scale: "All teaching good; much outstanding."