Whose heads are actually going to roll?

17th September 2004 at 01:00
I woke up last Sunday morning and had one lovely relaxed moment of unconsciousness before reading a newspaper story which alleged that Peter Peacock intends to get tough with failing teachers. The Education Minister, claimed the rumours, will be tough with councils which are then expected to be equally tough with underachieving schools and failing teachers. Poorly performing teachers, continued the gossip-mongering, will initially be offered help to improve but, if it becomes clear that they are a lost cause, they'll get the bullet.

Now I don't know if there is a shred of truth in any of these speculations but, if there is, Mr Peacock will have a battle on his hands. Of course, teachers will not be sacked other than for major offences such as sexual impropriety. Councils simply wouldn't have the guts to carry out such daring measures. For a start, what exactly would constitute a poor performance? Would teachers be judged on the exam results of pupils? If so, how many years of results would be counted for a scientifically valid picture?

Then there would be other relevant factors. Maybe the teacher is a victim of lack of resources, inadequate per capita, a subject dear to my heart.

The pupils might perform so much better if they just had that vital textbook -pound;16.99 per copy and you need 40 copies.

There would be many confounding variables in any plan to sack incompetent teachers. What if the pupils in question had not received enough support for learning to target their specific learning difficulties? Many kids are losing out when professional help would move them two heartbeats closer to success than the failure they are currently doomed to.

Too many councils have little meaningful hands-on contact with schools.

Yes, the education officers meet and liaise with headteachers but the plebs have little or no communication with their lords and masters. In fact, teachers would be hard pressed to recognise the people who staff education offices. This is a pity because teachers might just be encouraged if they received the odd pat on the back from their bosses. In the health service, for instance, there is much more awareness about the importance of policy-makers meeting the troops.

Some school managers are good at motivating staff by valuing success. I certainly know that I appreciated being told "well done" when 24 out of 33 of my Higher psychology students achieved A passes in the most recent diet of exams. It would also be inspiring, however, to have high moments acknowledged by local authorities. All successful organisations actively celebrate winning formulae. So, hey ho Mr Peacock, be tough on councils and give them some basic advice on how to praise their hard-working teachers.

Another problem which has a major impact is how councils monitor schools.

While schools should be able to maintain some individuality, there must be sufficient uniformity of procedures to secure the highest standards. For instance, my school has a strict policy on verification of Scottish Qualifications Authority internal assessments. All such paperwork is verified by a member of the senior management team. This - and rightly so - demands much more accountability from teachers and therefore a better deal for pupils. Other secondary schools do not necessarily offer such rigorous checks.

Yet, despite the various extraneous factors, there is no way that I could claim that the teaching profession is free of underperformers. On the contrary, there are probably cuckoos in most school nests. But people presently get away with blue murder and I can't see that culture changing.

You can work as hard or as little as you wish with incompetence at every level in education.

However, I wait eagerly to find out if there is any truth in these current rumours. Councils and schools - where would heads roll first?

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

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