Time to separate good from the bad

11th June 2010 at 01:00

The lead story in The TESS on May 28 was thought-provoking. Tony Finn, the chief executive of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, believes that "in Scotland we already have an effective and nationally- agreed system of handling cases in which there is an allegation of incompetence".

Not everyone would agree. Until recently, and that's debatable, Scottish teachers could avoid dismissal unless they had a sexual relationship with a pupil or engaged in serious criminal activity. Dire inability to do the job has never prevented anyone from staying in the teaching profession or, indeed, advancing up the ranks.

At all levels, there are swathes of ineptitude which have a detrimental effect on children. Teachers have to be credible beings with pupils, parents and their colleagues. We all take enormous amounts of flak from time to time, and that's an inevitable part of the job. But we don't like being criticised and, predictably, we react very defensively when under the microscope. That makes it very difficult to deal with incompetent teachers.

The prolonged time it takes for failing teachers to be removed from the profession is unacceptable. Hitting them with precision-targeted missiles might not be the answer, but we have to stop pretending that we deal effectively with the situation.

When I was a pupil, my German teacher would write up the work for the lesson on the board and spend the afternoon smoking in the staffroom. Mayhem ensued, including my class locking the head of department in the cupboard when she came to investigate. But no one seemed to worry that the real problem was the inadequate teacher who abandoned a bunch of 14-year- olds to their own devices. Such blatant disregard for duty might not be tolerated now, but the problem remains.

Incompetence in any workplace is costly. Someone has to absorb the fall- out. Pupils achieve less, parents worry and other teachers pick up the slack because, inevitably, work has to be marked, pupils prepared for exams and reports written.

In many professions, ongoing training and re-accreditation are an accepted part of the job structure. My sister, a specialist clinician in paediatrics, regularly has to update her skills. Why do teachers squawk at the prospect of similar rigour being applied to their competencies?

I agree with Mr Finn that there are two issues here. One relates to providing much more robust and successful CPD for the vast majority of teachers who are doing an excellent job but whose professionalism would be enhanced by more training. The other involves the small but significant minority of teachers who can't or won't cut the mustard in the classroom, despite bucket loads of support and protracted proceedings of pretending everything is fine when it is not. Prolonging the agony is unhelpful.

Separating these two areas would allow us to progress beyond the limited mindset that puts teachers outside the sanctions which apply to most other working mortals. The solution is a double-edged sword. Any measures rigorous enough to sack incompetent teachers also seem to threaten teachers who are doing their job.

The profession needs to discuss this, because we are all diminished if hopeless teachers are not booted out. The ticking time bomb of incompetence will detonate, causing resentment all round. Why do teachers stay in jobs they manifestly can't do? Not waving but drowning? Or maybe waving while drowning?

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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