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Where heads fear to tread

What is competency in teaching? The revelation that only nine teachers have been dismissed for incompetence in the past five years begs some complex questions (page five). At first sight, it appears a remarkably low figure in a profession of 52,000 primary and secondary teachers. On the other hand, it chimes with the HMIE finding that lessons are very good or good in 94 per cent of schools.

We cannot assume that the final, drastic step of sacking an incompetent teacher is the only action; support, mentoring and monitoring systems should also be in place and, if they are effective, a small number of last resort sackings should be counted a success. Nor can we assume that teachers fall short only because of their own shortcomings; sometimes, they can be victims of poor management or changes in teaching methodologies. In the face of external forces, one teacher's incompetence can be another's resilience.

However, it is clear that more transparent action is needed. The taxpaying public will demand it. Headteachers, and even directors of education, are much more exposed to dismissal for poor performance than are teachers.

Perhaps their incompetence is easier to measure. It is heads who will none the less have to bite this particular bullet, which will depend on their own managerial and people skills as well as their ability to break what George Gardner calls the "staffroom dynamic". Safeguards will, of course, have to be in place to counter capricious action against those whose only "incompetence" is simply that their face doesn't fit.

The problem has been defining, and agreeing, a standard below which it is not acceptable that teachers should fall. The General Teaching Council for Scotland's Standard for Full Registration does just that and it would appear that legal niceties are all that stand in the way of implementing it. The standard was approved four years ago - hardly an indication of the "swift and effective" action demanded by the Education Minister this week.

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