Swifter sackings urged

6th June 1997 at 01:00
Local authorities are demanding new powers to hire and fire teachers as part of the drive to raise standards in schools.

The Government is being urged to loosen the rules on local management of schools so councils will be able to veto the appointment of a head and initiate disciplinary action against failing staff.

Poor teachers would be offered retraining but could ultimately be sacked within six months, under proposals for a new nationally agreed procedure to be put to Schools Minister Stephen Byers by the end of the month. Teachers accused of gross incompetence would be fired within weeks. At present, such dismissals regularly take between 18 months and three years.

Mr Byers, who has been charged by Prime Minister Tony Blair to raise standards in schools, wants urgent advice from local authorities on ways of speeding up the sacking of the 15,000 incompetent teachers estimated by chief inspector Chris Woodhead two years ago to be in classrooms. He will be given the same message already conveyed to Michael Barber, the head of the new schools standards and effectiveness unit: that local education authorities need greater powers if they are to have a more positive role in improving quality.

David Wilcox, vice-chair of the Local Government Association, said: "We do not want to turn the clock back, but at the same time we need something as well as our only power, the draconian measure of withdrawing local management.

"We need some intermediate levers to pull before a school is allowed to fail completely."

The LEA lobby wants a reform of local management, which at present makes a school's governing body responsible for employing its staff. Mr Wilcox said that while council officers gave advice to governing bodies on appointments, they were frequently ignored. "The problem is the quality of governing bodies is very variable."

Although any revision to local management of schools would require law reforms, sacking procedures could be speeded up by adopting the practices of some LEAs.

Government sources say a White Paper, to be published within the month, will look at whether the current balance between school and local authority powers is the best model for raising standards. Graham Lane, chairman of the National Employers of School Teachers, has been asked by Mr Byers to find a fast, but fair, way to sack incompetent teachers.

Mr Lane wants the minister to tell him how far the Government is prepared to go, but hopes to have some proposals in place by October.

"We want it to be less bureaucratic, less time-consuming but fair," he said. The more controversial ideas include the power to institute disciplinary proceedings against poor staff if heads and governors are reluctant to take action; powers to act on failing heads; and the ability to move staff between schools to raise standards or to give a career a new lease of life. One acute problem is how to deal with talented staff who may have become heads very early and lost motivation after years in the same post, but are too young to retire.

Present LMS arrangements do not allow councils to redeploy staff. Mr Lane said his colleagues had to go down on bended knees to persuade governing bodies to release staff to other schools.

The slowing of disciplinary action by staff going on stress-related sick leave is also a problem LEAs would like to tackle.

Whatever guidance Mr Byers gives on how far the Government might be prepared to tinker with LMS, the employers' report is likely to propose a six-month or two-term time limit for incompetence cases as part of a nationally agreed procedure which all LEAs would follow. They are also investigating the possibility of a new charge of gross incompetence for the worst cases, which would allow even swifter sackings.

They will also press for the restitution of the probationary year for new teachers, abolished by the previous government. Resurrected in a streamlined form, Mr Lane believes this would help keep good staff in the profession while swiftly weeding out the unsuitable.

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