Why juggling poor teachers can mean dropping the ball

Short-term approach lets down students, educationalist warns

Julia Horton

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Headteachers are denying pupils their right to the best possible education by spending too long "juggling timetables" to accommodate poorer teachers instead of addressing problems directly, according to a leading educationalist.

Graham Donaldson, a government adviser and former chief inspector of schools, said that school leaders were more focused on managing issues in the short term than resolving them for the future. As a result, pupils' chances of receiving a good education depended more on the individual teachers who took their lessons than on the school they attended, he warned.

Professor Donaldson's concern about variable standards within schools was echoed by the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS), which urged headteachers to show more leadership to tackle poor practice efficiently.

Speaking to headteachers at a conference in Crieff, Perthshire, Professor Donaldson argued: "In schools, which teacher you get makes more difference than which school you are at.

"We should think of teaching in the same way as we think about air traffic controllers. With air traffic controllers you can't say, `That one is not very good so put them on in the night.' Yet we do a lot of that in schools."

Professor Donaldson said that poor teachers were protected by being given easier classes to teach, rather than their underperformance being tackled.

Speaking to TESS, he added: "From a headteacher's point of view, of course, if they have concerns they need to deal with that in the short term and that's sensible.

"But if there are issues which they feel they have to constantly gear timetables around, they should also be addressing the need for professional development to develop the overall capacity of all teachers. All pupils have the right to receive the same high standard of education."

Professor Donaldson acknowledged that headteachers were doing more now to tackle issues than they had in the past, but warned against simply "sending someone on a course and thinking that will deal with the problem".

Ken Muir, chief executive of the GTCS, agreed. "How often do you hear a youngster saying `Mrs so-and-so is a brilliant teacher but Mr so-and-so is hopeless'?" he asked. "Schools can do much more to encourage collaboration between teachers, interdisciplinary learning and peer review. That's good leadership."

Parent leaders said there were many great teachers, but that it was "extremely difficult" for parents to voice worries about less competent staff because they feared being branded as troublemakers. "Authorities have a key role to play in addressing this and in taking views of parents on board instead of paying lip service to the Parental Involvement Act," said Iain Ellis, chair of the National Parent Forum of Scotland.

Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, said: "Headteachers are trying to get as many teachers as possible to the highest standard possible.but it's entirely about what's happening on the ground with an individual teacher.

"You're talking about individual people's lives and there can be many reasons [for issues to arise]. It could be that a good teacher, for personal reasons, is not as effective, and so you make adjustments to accommodate that short-term. Long-term you're hoping that they will return to where they were.

"Teachers may also be effective in some areas and not others so you look at a strategy that enhances their performance. Then you have the teachers who should not be there in the first place."

Mr Cunningham added that parents raising concerns were unlikely to be considered troublemakers but said it was important for them to understand that issues were often complex.

A spokesperson for local authorities body Cosla said that the "vast majority" of teachers did a "terrific job in genuinely challenging circumstances".

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Julia Horton

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