Martha is a supply teacher. She used to be a faculty head at a successful London school. Attempting to reverse an increasing budget deficit, caused by funding cuts and straightforward mismanagement, the school’s headteacher hit upon a plan: to ‘remove’ some of the school’s more experienced teachers, whose years in their profession meant that they were near the top of the pay scale. Teachers like Martha.
A letter of complaint soon arrived at the school, from a father whose child’s education had, allegedly, been jeopardised by Martha’s incompetence. Martha, who had never been the subject of a professional complaint before – indeed, she was regarded, and graded, as a highly competent practitioner – was never shown the letter whose claims the headteacher had decided not to interrogate. Instead, she was placed on capability procedures, with the option of resigning before their outcome was known. The head emphasised that, if Martha didn’t exercise that ‘choice’, he could ensure – if he were so inclined – that she never worked in schools again. Sticking to her guns and refusing to resign, Martha was forbidden from discussing her case with third parties – including the other staff from whom, she became aware, the headteacher was seeking comments that could be folded, origami-style, into incriminating ‘evidence’. Before her monitoring period was over, Martha had resigned.
Capability procedures were introduced under New Labour, to help teachers tackle (perceived) weaknesses in their practice. Areas for development were to be identified and monitored through observations, scrutiny of relevant paperwork and records of student achievement. A date for review was to be agreed at the outset and appropriate training provided. Implementation guidelines made it clear that the process should be undertaken in a supportive manner, with the teacher being given the opportunity to improve before any further stages were invoked.
However, the way in which capability procedures are used in many schools is anything but supportive. Instead, numerous headteachers treat them as a means by which competent staff who have, for whatever reason, become undesirable may be hounded out of their posts. Experienced teachers are among the most frequent targets, almost invariably being replaced by cheaper staff. So, too, are those deemed members of ‘the awkward squad’ – a title it takes surprisingly little awkwardness to earn. With the power to initiate proceedings – and to decide whether teachers have passed them – in the hands of principals alone, capability procedures are ripe for misuse.
For these reasons, there is concern within the profession at Michael Gove’s introduction, this September, of a new, fast-track procedure – one that will allow allegedly incompetent staff to be removed from schools within a term. The idea is not completely without merits: there are teachers whose performance leaves much to be desired but who manage to cling on to their posts, to the detriment of their students and of the other staff who have to compensate for their inadequacies. It would be in their interests, as well as everyone else’s, to remove them as swiftly as possible.
However, it is one of the ironies of education that, while almost every school has an anti-bullying policy to protect pupils, teaching repeatedly ranks among the top three professions for workplace bullying. The perpetrators are often the very heads that politicians and much of the wider public assume to be models of probity. A teacher, who witnessed colleagues being placed on capability procedures, described the process as one of “leperisation”: other staff, fearing that they would be next, distanced themselves from the victims or did nothing in their defence. Many will recognise these dynamics from the playground bully’s repertoire. Yet, it is into such hands that the government is delivering increasing managerial autonomy in schools. Congruently, a current employee at the Department for Education claims that its own culture is characterised by “a lot of fear…Staff feel that if they put their heads above the parapet, they will be seen as an awkward character who could be got rid of”. A rare example of a minister willing to do as he implicitly says?
The insidiousness of such practices lies in the ease with which headteachers, so inclined, can preserve – even, enhance – their altruistic credentials (they are, after all, only doing it for the kids) while knowingly distorting the reputations of competent teachers to such degrees that they are, effectively, unemployable in other schools. Union representatives have often failed to make any headway on such cases, being unwittingly lied to themselves, or because the principal concerned has been careful to avoid leaving a trail of culpability. Rather than spend time pursuing the matter through the courts, unions are generally more likely to steer members towards accepting ‘compromise agreements’ that often impose gagging orders on those forced out of their posts. With the compression of capability procedures, the chances of successful union intervention are reduced even further.
Assuming he is not aware of them already – or, even, tacitly approving of them – the Education Secretary must contemplate the misuses to which headteachers’ disciplinary powers can be put. The introduction of a fast-track dismissal system should not enable principals alone to act as accusers, judges and executioners. Rather, a rigorous procedure is needed that allows for the removal of genuinely incompetent staff, but that also holds heads to stringent account for their decisions. As long as so much power continues to be entrusted to what can be dubious hands, Martha’s case will be, as it is, far from exceptional.