Platform: To hell and back

21st November 1997 at 00:00
Anyone who believes that dealing with allegations of incompetence is easy should think again. It may seem a simple matter - professions have people who are not doing their job properly, so identify them, give them a chance to improve, and if they blow it, kick them out - but it is not.

There has been virtually no significant systematic research in this country into what constitutes "incompetence" in the classroom, what steps are taken, how decisions are reached, whether those alleged to be incompetent improve or deteriorate, and what impact the process has on the whole school community.

A study of alleged "incompetence" is one important part of the Teaching Competence Project, funded by the Gatsby Foundation, which I direct at Exeter University. Consider some of the things we have been told by people we have interviewed so far. Here are four people involved in "incompetent teacher" cases.

"I went to hell and back."

"It took a year, a very painful, traumatic, long-drawn-out year."

"You're totally on your own. I was always frightened I was going to go off on long-term sick."

"I was subjected to a barrage of criticism ... and I was always on my own...The upshot was that I left in quite a state. I had no confidence when I left."

Can you guess the background to these distraught quotes? Whose health suffered? Who felt alone? The answer is that the first three are headteachers and the fourth is a teacher. Whether you are the accuser or the accused, allegations of incompetence tear at the very soul of those involved.

In the first phase of the research we have been interviewing a sample of 60 primary and secondary headteachers selected at random from seven local authorities. The heads were asked to describe a particular case of alleged incompetence in which they had been engaged.

Three-quarters of the cases had reached a conclusion, the remainder were still in progress. The process had often been long drawn out, with about half the concluded cases taking between 18 months and two-and-a-half years.Three of the completed cases had taken seven, eight and 12 years respectively. On the other hand, a quarter had been concluded in under a year.

Inability to keep order was identified by heads as the biggest problem, this applying to three-quarters of the teachers. Other major factors, in order of frequency, were bad relationsh ips with children, ineffective or non-existent planning and preparation, poor pupil progress.

The outcomes were varied. In most cases the teacher resigned, retired or moved on. In a few instances the teacher improved. One or two heads tried to minimise damage by giving the teacher less exacting duties. Two teachers were made redundant.

What was particularly striking, when we interviewed heads, was the tremendous angst and strained relationshi ps that could ensue. One primary head described how she arrived at her new school only to be presented with a petition signed by every parent of a particular class asking her to sack the class teacher. He would turn up for school in the morning and go home sick at ten past nine. She persuaded him to resign, but was torn between what she saw as her first and most important duty, to the children and parents, but also her second responsibility as manager of a professional colleague suffering from severe stress.

A number of heads were tortured by the same dilemma. All saw their duty to children as coming first, but were able to empathise, particularly with teachers who were suffering with health problems or broken marriages. When they finally got rid of the teacher, they were consumed by guilt and feelings of personal failure, however much colleagues or governors assured them they had done the right thing.

One notable feature was the effect of a new head on a school. Some reported that when they tried to bring about improvements, or asked for changes, the teacher would reply, "Well the previous head was satisfied". A primary head, new to her school, thought that four teachers were not sufficiently competent. She gave children a reading test and in one class 25 out of 30 pupils were below their chronologic al age. One teacher's husband threatened her with physical violence.

There are aspects of human life where people have different perceptions of events, and the assessment of "competence" can be a prime example. The context may also make a difference. A teacher in one school was described by an adviser as the worst he had ever observed. Parents complained and the head regarded her as a complete failure. Yet when she left and moved to another school, she was seen as a success. Her new head commented: "I was prepared to take her on. I felt there had been a personality clash. All the things she had been criticised for were excellent. The parents have been very complimentary. I see it as our gain and their loss."

Despite the support of her union, this teacher felt alone. Many heads also described a sense of isolation. Some governing bodies rally round, others say, "Count us out, you're on your own". Those at the very centre, the children, are not involved directly, though complaints from parents do touch on them.

In the next stages of the project we shall be investigating the experiences of children, as well as those of union and LEA officers, parents, governors and also of teachers alleged to be incompetent. The issue is complex and has such an impact that the perceptions of all these groups must be brought together if we are to improve what currently happens.

Ted Wragg is professor of education at the University of Exeter.

If you are a teacher about whom there have been allegations of incompetence, the Exeter team would like to send you a questionnaire to complete. If you know of a teacher in this position, ask him or her to contact the project. No teacher will be identified in project reports. Please write in confidence to Gill Haynes, Teaching Competence Project, School of Education, Exeter University, Exeter EX1 2LU.

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