Labour adviser alarms unions with proposal to deal with incompetent teachers, reports Geraldine Hackett. Controversial proposals to give inspectors the power to prepare confidential reports on poor teachers are being put forward by the architect of Labour's latest strategy for tackling failing schools.
Michael Barber, professor of education at Keele University, and an influential adviser to David Blunkett, Labour's spokesman on education, suggests that such reports might provide a basis for heads to begin disciplinary procedures against teachers.
In this week's TESGreenwich lecture, Professor Barber estimates that inspections may identify more than 2,500 schools that are struggling to provide adequate education in addition to between 250 and 500 deemed to be failing.
In these schools, says Professor Barber, steps have to be taken to deal with the performance of a relatively small number of poor teachers.
Such measures are unlikely to go down well with the teacher unions. Their leaders have already expressed dismay at Mr Blunkett's endorsement of the Barber-inspired Fresh Start strategy for closing failing schools. However, Professor Barber speaks from a background of several years as head of research at the National Union of Teachers and he has had practical experience of problem schools as Labour chairman of the London borough of Hackney's education committee.
For weak schools that are not technically failing, he suggests there should be a formal procedure for dealing "effectively and fairly" with poor teachers or failing heads. The inspectors' confidential report on individuals could trigger competency proceedings - if found incompetent the teacher would be dismissed.
The lecture elaborates on the Fresh Start initiative. According to Professor Barber, a local education authority would have to act quickly to close a failing school, perhaps over an extended summer break. The school would then re-open with new governors; high-calibre leadership and extra resources to attract new staff. Teachers from the old school would be able to apply to the new one.
The sanction of closure would apply only to the worst of the failing schools, says Professor Barber. The intention would be to open a school staffed with teachers who were innovative and ambitious.
"I am talking about handfuls of schools. It would not apply to all failing schools, only those that had been consistently failing for some time," says Professor Barber.
In some cases, he says, closing the school and dispersing pupils might be the best solution. However, if that forced children to travel long distances, then some teenagers might just disappear from the education system. A better option might be to re-open as a new school.
The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers has poured scorn on the idea as impractical. Nigel de Gruchy, the union's general secretary, also objects to the idea that inspectors could prepare confidential reports on teachers.
"Incompetent teachers should be identified on their second day in a school. It says a great deal about a head who has to be told about incompetents. Any such report on a teacher should be open and public," he says So far, the Office for Standards in Education has verified that 50 schools are failing to provide adequate education: 19 secondary; two middle; 26 primary and three for children with special needs.
OFSTED says the purpose of inspection is to look at the quality of teaching and learning. Identifying weak teachers is the responsibility of heads and local authorities and is not an area in which OFSTED would want to interfere.