National education bodies in Scotland are usually reluctant to talk about bad teachers. They fear that focusing on a handful of bad apples would give a distorted impression of a workforce that all say is overwhelmingly dedicated and professional.
Privately, however, school leaders and other senior figures in Scottish education have often shared their frustration at the difficultly of removing bad teachers from schools – and from the profession altogether.
Now, one national body is very publicly raising concerns that it can take longer than two-and-a-half years for an incompetent teacher to be removed from the classroom. The process, it insists, has to be sped up.
School Leaders Scotland (SLS), which represents secondary headteachers, says it is reasonably happy with the procedures that exist in schools, but it queries whether the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) has the capacity to process cases.
“When it gets to the point where the local authority refers the case to the GTCS, it can take an interminable amount of time to be dealt with,” says SLS general secretary Jim Thewliss.
The call comes amid concern about the Scottish government’s proposal to expand the GTCS to become an Education Workforce Council for a wider range of education workers; the GTCS estimates that the number of registrants might rise from 74,500 currently to 203,750 under the new body.
SLS stresses that it does not want to see the GTCS lose any of its current functions, but it does hope to use the ongoing government review of how schools are run “to enter into discussion in regard of adding rigour to the process of challenging underperformance”.
Thewliss adds: “You can identify a member of staff whose performance needs to be supported, that can then enter into performance management, and by the time you have gone through the whole system, it can take anything from 18 months to two-and-a-half years, sometimes longer. What that means is that you have a member of staff around whom you have concerns over competence, who is in there teaching kids and not improving.”
Thewliss stresses that the number of teachers who should be removed is quite small – and certainly not in the hundreds – and that most teachers who are struggling respond positively to support when provided.
However, he says that in instances in which teachers fail to improve, “we need to make sure that kids’ education is not being damaged for an undue length of time”.
Thewliss adds: “There is a process there and we are happy with that process per se. What we would like to introduce is more rigour, so that we get to a conclusion more quickly than we do just now.”
One fitness-to-teach case, about which the GTCS published details in January, involved incidents alleged to have taken place between 2005 and 2013. Also, last month, its website showed that a French teacher in Glasgow had been struck off for a number of breaches of the GTCS Code of Professionalism and Conduct dating back to 2011-12.
EIS teaching union general secretary Larry Flanagan says that when a case is referred to the GTCS, it should be dealt with “expeditiously”. But first, he stresses, all stages in the fitness-to-teach process must be exhausted – including teachers being provided with adequate support. He adds that delays can occur when earlier stages have not been implemented, which requires the process to be restarted.
Flanagan says: “We find sometimes it can take a significant length of time before you get to a hearing. But quite often the key thing for us is that the earlier stages of the process have not been addressed adequately.”
A GTCS spokeswoman says: “The GTCS recently revised its fitness-to-teach framework to streamline its regulatory processes. It is entirely possible within this new framework for a professional-competence case to be processed within a matter of months.”
She adds: “This is an issue in the first instance for employers to manage. For a number of reasons, the GTCS does not always receive referrals regarding professional competence from employers of teachers, and the issues in this context are both complex and challenging. The GTCS is working with employers to increase awareness and understanding of its processes and recently established a fitness-to-teach employer stakeholder group to facilitate two-way dialogue on issues such as this.”