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Do schools ‘need’ bad teachers?

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Blog - Do schools ‘need’ bad teachers?

Monday 12 July 2010

‘Schools need bad teachers’ proclaimed one newspaper headline yesterday, supposedly reporting a comment made by the chair of the Ofsted Board (like the governing body for Ofsted).  Somewhat perplexing, until you take the trouble to read what she actually said.  As often, the media totally twist comments made in good faith to turn them into a story! 

What she actually said was that while it is really important for heads to tackle poor teaching in schools, if a child in a secondary encountered one poor teacher, it was ‘not necessarily a disaster’.  While you can understand what she was getting at, it is probably one of those cases where she ends up wishing she had never started the whole debate, because it gets more and more complicated to try to get the original point over.  The original point being that learning to cope with a range of personalities and a range of performance levels is part of growing up – of course it is – but it is quite hard to say that without it sounding like you are actually aiming to have bad teachers in schools!  Which would be completely perverse.

In her frantic back-peddling, the chair of Ofsted denounced the notion that it was hard to ‘get rid of poor teachers’ – echoing the revelation that only 18 teachers had been ‘sacked’ in England for incompetence in 40 years, which was in the media a week or so ago.  In fact every head teacher I know says that it is in fact a demanding process to ‘get rid of poor teachers’ – employment law is very tough, and in the view of many tends to support the employee rather than the employer (but remember that employers are also employees!) and the process for tackling underperforming teachers is rather slow.  (And there is absolutely no conspiracy for passing poor teachers around from school to school, and heads are in my experience honest with each other about teachers in references they write.  Teachers do get jobs in different schools because they often have a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, and different schools and contexts call for different areas of strength). 

It’s a question of striking a balance here.  It would not be in anyone’s interest to destabilise totally the teaching profession by giving heads unlimited arbitrary power to fire people at will.  It would certainly make teaching a less attractive profession and would probably have the effect of reducing the overall quality of teachers over time.  On the other hand, making it possible to increase the speed of the process needed to deal with teacher underperformance, while retaining the robustness of the process (this is people’s livelihood we are talking about) would certainly be very welcome by most heads I meet.  The slowness of the process is a constant gripe.

Finally, and back to the original point – while all this is happening behind the scenes, helping young people to manage different kinds of teacher-student relationships is a valuable life lesson – but note: I am not condoning bad teaching!