Graham Clayton M.A. (Cantab), Legal Consultant

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Is it really so hard to dismiss teachers as the press and media have been suggesting ?  It's a myth.  

June 2010

Again Panorama been has shocking the nation with allegations about incompetent teachers in our classrooms.  As public sector cuts threaten, it seems there’s going to be a scapegoat hungry clamour  to revive the whiskery old myth about how there are lots of incompetent teachers around and it’s impossible to sack them. 

Panorama’s shock-horror presentation suggesting a 40 year old scandal didn’t assist understanding. The soon to be mourned General Teaching Council in England and its counterpart in Wales didn’t  actually open the registers from which teachers could be struck off until 2000, and the  system in operation prior to that didn’t really allow for disqualification for reasons of incompetence other than in the most serious cases. Even Panorama’s title, “Can I sack teacher” totally confused dismissal from a particular job with the far more serious penalty of being “struck off” from the GTC registers. 

The broadcasters also revived  the altogether unproven, and probably unproveable, figure of 15,000 bad and failing teachers over which the then OFSTED Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead was propagandising as long ago as 1997. His estimate was subsequently described in the New Statesman as ‘meaningless’.

The General Teaching Councils have never been in the business of deciding whether a teacher should be sacked for reasons of incompetence or for any thing else.  Their role has been to decide whether  things have got so bad, so irretrieveable, that  a teacher should lose the registration  vital to being allowed to work as a teacher in a state school.  That means, in many cases, negating years of study and work, many of which may have been successful.  De-registration is, quite rightly, a penalty of absolute last resort.  Short of deregistration, the GTCs have had the power to impose conditions on the licence to teach which registration gives, to force retraining, and to threaten harsher consequences for failure to improve. These are powers used by the GTCs far more frequently than  the power to strike off.

Yes, the GTCs in England and Wales have had a problem. Local authorities  and governing bodies are supposed to report to the GTCs cases in which teachers are dismissed, and cases in which teachers have resigned and avoided being dismissed.  Despite the GTCs’ very considerable efforts, compliance with this requirement has been patchy.  There is, however, no reason to think that 100% compliance would ever have caused a leap in the number of de-registrations.

Sacking means ending a job, not necessarily ending a career, and there are all kinds of reasons why a teacher might be found failing in a particular job without forcing the conclusion that the teacher is incapable of succeeding anywhere.  Careers set back by a dismissal from a job in which things haven’t been working out can very often be recovered, so it’s not in the least surprising that the number of GTC de-registrations has been small. So it should be.

Nor in fact is it more difficult to sack a teacher than anyone else.  Since at least the 1960s, it has been necessary to follow a formal procedure to decide on whether a teacher should be dismissed . It was a system adopted for the best of reasons to protect teachers from  partisan attempts to contrive their sacking.  What matters now is that the main features of the procedure are exactly those which were introduced when, in 1971, most  employees acquired protection against  unfair dismissal.  In 2004 these parallel legal structures were effectively merged.

Nor are the statistics on teacher dismissals accurate reflections of the number of employments ended because questions of performance and capability have arisen.  Teacher union officials spend a great deal of their time helping and supporting members who have been confronted with problems.  To their credit they don’t have a habit of encouraging their members to engage  in self-destructive defences against impossible odds.  Far more cases end up in negotiated agreements than in sackings, and their purpose is not, as Panorama would have it,  deals to “recycle” incompetent teachers.  They are rather agreements which give the threatened teacher the opportunity of a new start or the opportunity to escape, with dignity and self respect intact, from a situation in which have simply not worked out.

No doubt there will be more changes to accommodate as the GTCE, and possibly the GTCW, fade into history and job cuts threaten, but it will be a lot healthier for the arguments that will then take place to be based on real understanding and not on a long perpetuated myth.