Passing the buck on poor teacher performance

By Samantha Poling
BBC Scotland Investigations

image captionGood teaching can make the difference between getting a job and not

She was kind, considerate and good fun, but it was her passion for teaching which marked her out as something quite special.

It was only later as I moved through secondary school and was confronted with a myriad of different teachers that I realised just how special this early teacher had been and what a quality it was.

Don't get me wrong. My secondary school wasn't a bad one at all. Far from it.

Most of my teachers were good at what they did. But I did still have some teachers whose poor performances had a real impact on my life and defined where my career went.

It certainly didn't go in the areas where I had the bad teachers at school.

The government's spending priorities in education are about reducing class sizes and redesigning the curriculum, but what's surprising is there is very little evidence that these approaches deliver improved results.

I started wondering how much of an issue teacher competence was and how it affected children today in terms of academic achievement.

One of the first people I met in this investigation was Professor Simon Burgess from Bristol University.

'Marginal effect'

He and his team were responsible for the only comprehensive research in the UK on how a teacher's performance affects their pupils.

"One thing we were surprised about was how big the gap was between a good teacher and a bad teacher, and between an extremely effective teacher and an extremely ineffective one," he told me.

"What we found is that the difference between teachers in the bottom 5% and the teachers in the top 5% was something like one grade, a GCSE grade per pupil.

"A lot of policy issues in education really only have a kind of fairly marginal effect so changing class sizes from 32 to 29, it matters but it doesn't matter a huge amount.

"So the idea that this gap between the top and the bottom teachers was so large was really quite surprising, quite striking."

So would wiping out the bottom 5% of teachers make a difference in academic terms across the country?

"If you took all these people out, stopped them teaching the children and just replaced them even with just average teachers, that would be something like half a grade per pupil," he said.

"So again, if you do eight GCSEs, that would be an extra four grades for them, that they would get, which could be the difference between getting a job and not getting a job, the difference between going to university and not going to university."

I was surprised by how much of a difference a bad teacher could make in terms of how well a child did at school and I wondered whether parents were aware of the effect on their child's academic success.

I met with two mothers - Catherine Walker and Lynn Whitaker. Both their sons - Ryan and James - went to the same school.

Catherine recalled her son Ryan's first year at school as being happy and she watched him grow in confidence as the months went on.

'High standards'

"He just loved his teacher to bits - the 'Princess Teacher' he had, as they called her," she explained.

"She was marvellous and he loved her, loved school and he was very excited. Excited all the time about school. Excited coming home and telling you about it. He just really loved it."

But it all changed later on when Ryan, along with James, was taught by a supply teacher. A teacher whom, the mothers felt, didn't like the children.

Lyn Whitaker told me: "At parents' night I was told by the teacher that this was the worst class in the school and every other teacher knows that.

image captionHeadteachers have expressed concern about under-performing staff

"So it was as if this class, these demon children, were the talk of the school. Which I couldn't believe, I absolutely couldn't believe it."

Both parents complained to the school. And both were told by the headteacher that there was nothing the school could do to get rid of the teacher.

Catherine Walker said: "She was there and they were stuck with her. That was what she told me."

Lynn Whitaker said: "It didn't need to be a public outing of this teacher's incompetence. I just wanted this teacher away from that class."

At school, the person responsible for identifying under-performing teachers is the head.

They're meant to start what's called the competence or capability process. That means monitoring and supporting a teacher.

If the teacher doesn't get better, that teacher can be dismissed and referred to the General Teaching Council.

We wanted to know how often heads were embarking on these procedures.

The current working population of teachers in Scotland is 57,000.

Using Freedom of Information legislation, we discovered that across Scotland, only 61 teachers in the past five years had been put through the process.

I asked Tony Finn, the chief executive of the General Teaching Council, whether this number adequately represented the level of incompetence within the profession.

"If that's the only number of people who are incompetent, it speaks remarkably well of the high proportion of teachers who do a splendid job day in and day out," he said.

"In my experience in schools as I've been across the country, I have seen very few incompetent teachers. I couldn't put a number on it but I've been impressed by the high standard of teachers."

It was a re-assuring message for Scottish parents but in my conversations with headteachers, I was getting another, and quite different, explanation as to why the General Teaching Council was dealing with so few cases of incompetence.

I was hearing that the process was too lengthy, too complex. That headteachers didn't want the spotlight on their school and so were avoiding using the competency process altogether.

Clearly the comments I was hearing could be dismissed as anecdotal and unrepresentative. But they did highlight a fundamental difficulty in tackling incompetence within the profession.

Kay Hall spent 15 years as a headteacher of a primary school. Now retired and a union rep, she helps advise and support heads who are trying to get rid of incompetent teachers.

"Starting off the process you have to take a deep breath," she said.

"Carrying these sorts of procedures out in small environments can be quite difficult.

"It can often fracture the staff and staff find it very difficult to have a colleague singled out and under this sort of pressure.

"The tension it can cause in a school can often cause absence.

"And I've heard of grievances taken out against headteachers who were beginning to closely monitor staff where they were concerned about under-performance as well."

'Moved elsewhere'

Ultimately, the head teacher is the one person who shouldn't be walking away from incompetence within the classroom.

Yet if the competency process is proving too difficult for them to embark on, then are they dealing with it in other ways?

I started to hear of a practice which runs contrary to the high standards the profession proudly proclaims it upholds. This practice was called 'pass the parcel'.

Headteachers I had been speaking to told me they had all had incompetent teachers in their schools.

They had got rid of them by applying enough pressure on the teacher so that the teacher wanted to leave.

The headteacher would pass them on to other schools.

I asked the organisation whose job it is to represent secondary school headteachers in Scotland whether they were aware this practice of recycling teachers went on.

Ken Cunningham, of School Leaders Scotland, said: "I have no doubts whatsoever - on the odd occasion, I hope it's the odd occasion, and I think more frequently in the past than now, because there are better processes in place now and there is a clearer understanding of how you can measure a teacher against standards because there are standards.

"In the old days these standards were a bit obtuse and difficult to pin somebody down on.

"Now you can. So I would hope that didn't happen anything like as much as it did in the past. Anecdotally I suspect there is still that happening from time to time, but nothing like as often as it did."

But surely this recycling of incompetent teachers shouldn't happen at all? I asked Mike Russell, education secretary, what he thought of this practice.

He said: "I think that is the most destructive thing. The last thing that should happen is that the teacher who has genuinely failed in a school and who clearly shouldn't be in the profession, is just be moved somewhere else. That's quite unacceptable.

"Where there is evidence of that happening, the GTC and those responsible for teacher support and teacher registration, should stop it happening.

"I am appalled to hear it goes on. I am a parent, I am education secretary. I don't think it happens much, I have no evidence, but if it happens at all it shouldn't happen."

You can see BBC Scotland's investigation - Teachers: Could Do Better on BBC One Scotland at 2235 BST on Wednesday.

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