Where good doesn't even come into it

13th February 2004 at 00:00
Many headteachers have been through the stress and agony of weeding out at least one incompetent teacher in their school in the past 10 years. Many will have been older staff who should never have made it through their probationary year or who were unable to keep pace with the enormous changes of the 1990s.

For teachers who had been "incompetent" for 20 or more years, a dignified exit was impossible, and the pain and stress were magnified all round. Now incompetent teachers rarely get past their induction year. Problem sorted, or so we thought.

But now the goal posts have been shifted. The chief inspector, David Bell, tells us that having competent teachers who teach satisfactory lessons is not good enough. In his annual report on the national literacy and numeracy strategies in primary schools, he refers to the "stubborn core of around one in three lessons (where) the teaching is satisfactory". I thought it was a misprint at first. But no, it seems that satisfactory has become the new unsatisfactory.

So these "satisfactory" teachers who are persistently OK but not inspirational mean that heads will be forced to embark on another gruelling round of giving support and advice before deciding who can improve, who can't and who won't. Then they will have to start the stressful and protracted competence procedures to get rid of those who fall into the two last categories.

This is an extremely dangerous path: once all lessons are "good", then good will become the new satisfactory, which we now know is unsatisfactory, and we will start the process again with these good staff. And after that the "very good" teachers will become the new "good" which was the new "satisfactory" which was the new "unsatisfactory", and once we've got rid of them, we'll be happy to retain the very few excellent teachers who have not left in disgust at having to teach classes of 100. Oh, I forgot, "blue sky" thinking says we no longer need qualified teachers in schools - other than the headteacher. No problem.

Most professionals in education have a great deal of admiration for our new chief inspector. But I am disappointed that he has taken the easy course of blaming children's lack of attainment on uninspiring lessons and forcing teachers to improve or be sacked, rather than the path of forcing parents to live up to their parenting responsibilities and forge a true partnership with education.

There may be a school in far-off Borsetshire which has escaped the pressure for teaching standards to improve, but most of us have gone as far as we can. What we need now is to improve the quality of learning. Not so simple, since many of the barriers are not in our control. I'm talking lack of parental support, poor attendance (often parentally condoned), poor punctuality, execrable nutrition, insolence, negative attitudes to school, lack of homework, and no proper sleep. In schools there are too few (staff) doing too much and being criticised when they don't do all of it well, and too many (parents and children) doing very little and getting away with it.

If parents did what I assume readers of this do - deliver their children to school daily, on time, with a decent breakfast, with their homework and with a positive attitude to school and learning - and gave the school their full support, then "satisfactory" teaching would make a difference.

With motivated children and less time and energy spent on behaviour management, teachers would have the luxury of planning innovation and excitement into their work, children would achieve more in lessons and satisfactory lessons would become good anyway. Problem solved.

Cathy Byrne

Cathy Byrne is head of a Hull primary school

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