Melanie Phillips

5 July 2010

The unsackable teaching profession

Published in: Daily Mail

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When someone is found to be thoroughly incompetent at their job, there is only one remedy. That individual has to be fired.

Unfortunately, there are many instances where that doesn’ t happen. Dud employees may be given a glowing reference just to get rid of them.

In the public sector in particular, they may even end up being promoted to get them out of the way.

The result is that they can then inflict their incompetence on a fresh set of unsuspecting victims. When this involves children whose life chances are blighted as a result, this is absolutely unforgivable.

Yet that is what is revealed by tonight’s edition of BBC TV’s Panorama, which claims that over the past four decades a mere 18 teachers have been drummed out of the profession for incompetence.

That figure is hard to credit — not least because it was only a decade ago that a register of teachers was set up, along the lines of the medical profession, from which a teacher could be ‘struck off ’ and thus prevented from ever teaching again.

But even if the precise figure is arguable, the fact that teachers have effectively been unsackable has indeed been a key factor in the desperate decline of British education.

Back in the early days of the Blair government, the then Chief Inspector of Schools Chris Woodhead caused a sensation when he stated that some 15,000 teachers were incompetent and should be sacked.

Two years ago, the General Teaching Council’s chief executive Keith Bartley said there could be as many as 17,000 ‘substandard’ teachers among the 500,000 registered teachers in the UK.

It wasn’t surprising that, far from being reduced during the intervening period, the figure had actually risen. For in the teaching profession it seems that virtually no one is ever sacked for incompetence.

For years, head teachers have complained that one of their main problems was that the terms of teachers’ contracts with local education authorities meant they were unable to sack those who were not up to scratch.

Now Panorama is apparently reporting the shocking fact that, instead of being removed from the profession, dud teachers are merely being recycled by being given good references in exchange for agreeing to look for work in alternative schools.

According to Mick Brookes, leader of the National Association of Head Teachers, this is a common practice which he says causes heads serious problems. The classroom teacher unions, however, think it is perfectly justified.

Well, there’s a surprise. In fact, it is an absolute betrayal of the children for whom school represents their one chance in life.

Bristol University professor Simon Burgess, who has researched the impact of bad teachers on pupil performance, says that if all the poor teachers were replaced by even just average ones achievement per pupil would rise by as much as half a grade.

With all due respect to Professor Burgess, we didn’t need an academic study to tell us that the quality of a teacher makes all the difference.

It is patently obvious that it is the most important factor in a child’s education. An inspirational teacher can transform a pupil’s prospects even in the most unpromising school.

Conversely, a rotten teacher can blight a pupil for life even in an apparently well-favoured school.

The fact that bad teachers are being recycled from one school to another means that other unfortunate children will get a lousy education.

Just imagine the outcry if incompetent doctors weren’t struck off but were moved to another hospital, thus exposing yet more patients to dangerous treatment. Pupils may not be exposed to physical threat from useless teachers, but their entire life chances are certainly imperilled by them.

It was to lever up teachers’ standards — and also to boost their professional status — that the General Teaching Council was introduced ten years ago with the power to strike incompetent teachers off the register.

In fact, all it did was shore up the incompetence in a classic example of professionals sticking together — a sorry record which has led the new Education Secretary, Michael Gove, rightly to disband the Council altogether.

But the problem of incompetent teachers goes far deeper than a flawed regulatory structure or self-interested unions.

For the teaching profession’s implacable refusal to dump its bad apples is rooted in a desire to protect not just poorly performing employees but an entire way of thinking about education itself.

Take the explosion of anger and incredulity detonated by Chris Woodhead’s claim of 15,000 sub-standard teachers.

This was hardly an implausible figure, since every profession carries a proportion of dead wood which needs to be pruned and 15,000 amounted to fewer than 5 per cent of the total number of teachers in schools.

Yet for speaking this most elementary if inconvenient truth, Woodhead was instantly and viciously vilified by virtually the entire educational establishment.

This simply refused to accept there was anything wrong with teachers or teaching. All educational failure was blamed instead on child poverty, low school funding or parental inadequacy.

This was patently absurd, since there were always schools in the most deprived areas and with high proportions of pupils from highly disadvantaged backgrounds where pupils nevertheless achieved far more than in other schools.

The reason was always the superior quality of the teaching. But the real sting in this — and the reason Woodhead was crucified — was that such competence almost always went hand in hand with a traditional approach to education.

For the fact is that so much teachers’ incompetence has been inextricably tied up with the destructive dogma of ‘childcentred’ education, which has driven our entire school system off the rails.

The most successful teachers have always understood that children need to be inducted into a body of knowledge, to be taught in a structured and disciplined manner, to be corrected when they make mistakes.

But for decades, the predominant educational ideology has ordained that children effectively teach themselves, with teachers taking a back seat as mere ‘facilitators’.

What children feel about themselves has been deemed to be more important than what they know.

Achievement was bad — because it made others who didn’t achieve feel bad about themselves.

This led to the collapse of the teaching of reading and the dumbing down of virtually every subject on the curriculum. Indeed, it eroded the very basis of teaching as the transmission of knowledge.

Instead, it led to the lunacy of ‘learnacy’ — that prize bit of educational gibberish that says there is no such thing as reality, and so instead of acquiring knowledge children must just learn how to learn.

Throughout the Labour government years, the evidence of the enormous damage done by this ideological idiocy was systematically denied by the educational establishment. Unless Michael Gove gets to grip with this, his reforms will hit the buffers.

That means in the first place training teachers on the job in the schools. For little of this disaster can be laid at the door of the teachers themselves.

The real problem is located in our teacher training institutions, which have dressed up all this nonsense in pretentious, pseudo-intellectual psychobabble which masked the fact it was utter garbage.

Head teachers need to be given the power to hire and fire if they are ever to be able to run competent schools.

But it is those who teach the teachers, and have indoctrinated them into the pedagogy of institutionalised incompetence, who really need to be fired if our systemic problem of failure in the classroom is ever to be fixed.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography

Books

  • The World Turned Upside Down
  • Londonistan
  • The Ascent of Woman
  • America's Social Revolution

Contact Melanie

Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie