Sending out an SOS
A teacher in trouble is difficult, time consuming and emotionally draining. And, as one head says, it's one of the "biggest challenges of leadership".
The hard-nosed response is to put pupils first and sack him or her. This is easier said than done: unless the head has clear supporting evidence that the teacher is not doing his or her job properly - with extra evidence of any efforts made to help him or her improve - the teacher is likely to win any appeal against the dismissal.
A year ago the Government proposed a simplified formal procedure for such dismissals, but the fundamentals of natural justice still have to be in place. And usually, long before a failing teacher becomes formally visible, there will have been a raft of backstage interventions involving the head, colleagues, advisers and sometimes union officers. All are hoping to avoid the need for triggering such a painful procedure.
Many heads and teachers will hold that this is the right course of action. It avoids confrontation and, for the teacher, can end either in improvement or in a mutually agreed move to another job, in teaching or outside. Yet often the problem rumbles on through meeting after meeting, with the children the silent or not-so-silent victims. And, perhaps because of the pressure on heads to demonstrate improvements, in many authorities the number of capability cases is increasing.
Bev Curtis, whose consultancy Education Personnel Services handles personnel matters for a number of authorities and schools, approves of this trend. He recommends that school management teams move quickly to the formal stage, not so they can sack people but because the procedure will force them to articulate their reservations about the teacher, and to offer proper support with agreed targets.
"The main thing is to tackle it early, before frustration sets in," Mr Curtis says. "A head might say 'You've got to help me get rid of this person', and then you find that they've been there for eight years and this is the first time anyone has done anything about it."
Heads instigate the procedure with the intention of collecting evidence to dismiss, he says, whereas the aim should be to provide suport to change. "If you bring about change, then you have solved the problem. If you don't bring about change, then you have the evidence for dismissal."
In fact, as Bev Curtis points out, few teachers are dismissed as the result of capability procedures. "Some improve, and if they can't they usually realise that it isn't the right job for them."
But once heads decide to take action, things change for everyone concerned. One headteacher, who has just finished such a procedure which lasted 18 months, agrees that it was one of her biggest leadership challenges yet.
She was faced with an experienced teacher who, soon after being appointed to the school, began to show signs of not being able to cope.
Things were no better after 12 months of in-house support, at which point the head decided to move to the formal procedure. Just starting the process, she says, took three two-hour meetings, attended by the teacher, the teacher's union representative, the head and the deputy.
"I was challenged on everything," she says. "Did I make my concern clear? Did the teacher understand that our meetings were about competence and not just friendly chats? All this just to get off the start line." She believes that many heads have simply not been able to summon the will to jump through all these hoops.
"But headship is changing, and so is teaching. It's very challenging, and people sometimes just lose the plot for one reason or another."
One of the most potent of these changes is increased collection and better computer analysis of assessment data. "By the end of the second week in September, we can start to see the added-value figures for every teacher in every subject. There's no hiding place."
This openness and accountability can be positive. There are teachers who feel dissatisfied and sure they could do better, but feel they are unable to ask for help. Transparency of results, carefully interpreted, should offer a way forward. At many schools, for example, there is a planned programme of lesson observation, by both senior staff and peers, with timetabled discussion afterwards.
"It's more demanding," says the head, "but it's more open, more professional - and it calls for the highest quality of leadership."