Tag Archives: capability procedures

Capability Blown

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.

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Outclassing The Opposition

The pleasure I take in watching Outnumbered is not simply the schadenfreude of the childless, sniggering as knackered parents pretend it was always part of The Grand Plan for their offspring to run rings around them. For, as well as being an object of pity/envy for fertile friends, who watch the programme through their fingers, I’m also a teacher. And in Outnumbered’s depiction of my profession, I think we have one of the most trenchant critiques of education policy around.

It all started innocuously enough in the first series, with Pete being forced to apologise (sorry, pen a “statement of regret”) for observing that a fat pupil was fat. A subplot that involves treading on linguistic eggsshells could be set in any number of professional environments. The asymmetry of power between young and less-young, however, is specific to schools, evoking a ‘safeguarding’ contract I and my colleagues were invited to sign, pledging to never, ever, use sarcasm – dark or otherwise – in the classroom. Unwilling to relinquish the key weapon in my disciplinary arsenal, I, for one, did not put my thumbprint on the dotted line.

The suspicion that Outnumbered’s writers were receiving secret dispatches from the interactive whiteboard was properly aroused by the next series, in which the headteacher (apologies again –“Senior Education Provider”) became an on-screen character, advocating “syllabus synchronicity” and “360 degree education”. Taking shots at the slavish mimicry of jargon is easy (mea culpa). It’s the programme’s willingness to poke its nose, while others pretend they can’t smell a thing, that has me snorting into the sofa cushions – at the school’s suggestion that young Ben take the day off school when the Ofsted inspectors were coming, for instance.

Cast your minds back to Pete’s interview for the Head of History post, at the end of which the Senior Education Provider invited him to demonstrate his commitment to the school, by removing “anomalous” (i.e. crap) Year 9 results from its prospectus. To the uninitiated viewer, this may have seemed like dramatic licence. But I can’t have been the only teacher to have seen in this a frighteningly accurate rendition of the smoke-and-mirrors tactics now practiced by schools cowering under relentless targets and league tabling. Not to mention headteacherly ambition. With courses available on (I quote) ‘Managing the Public Perception of Your School’, life is imitated by sit-com – not only its depiction of education’s creative accounting, but also the dark art of spin that has become an integral feature of school leadership.

Which brings me to the latest series’ revelations from the staffroom. We now find Pete sans travail, having: a) reported a junior colleague’s unprofessional conduct; b) issued the principal with a choice between  Pete-brand integrity and the colleague’s lack thereof; and c) found that the colleague’s lack thereof was vastly preferable. And so, Pete’s resignation is requested and accepted with almost unseemly haste. Here the writers have hit a particularly rich seam – one potentially replete with nuggets of which most non-teachers are unaware, and with which politicians have been oddly reluctant to engage.

As Pete has found to his cost, teachers are ill-advised to take on less-experienced colleagues these days. Not because the latter occupy higher ground, morally or intellectually; nor because it would be a shame to blight their nascent careers. The crucial point is that, by dint of having less experience, recently-qualified staff  are at lower points on the salary scale and, on the whole, more manipulable. Cheap and malleable is a devastatingly attractive combination to dangle before penny-wise-pound-foolish heads, under pressure to somehow produce continuous improvements in results, within increasingly limited budgets.. Hence the barely-reported phenomenon of teachers who are highly-qualified, highly experienced, highly professional… and virtually unemployable for the above reasons.

Take the case of Feroze, who used to head the Art department at a south London school. With an excellent track record, she was surprised to find that reporting a junior colleague, for passing off his own work as that of his students, resulted in her being placed on capability procedures by a senior education provider who was intensely relaxed with cheating his school to the top of the local league table. Promoting staff whose long, dark nights of the soul were similarly comparable to those in an Arctic summer was clearly the way to go. One cycle of capability procedures can be nerve-shredding; Feroze was subjected to four in succession. Broken by the experience, she resigned and was promptly replaced as departmental head by the junior colleague who thought ‘teach’ was an anagram. The kids get the grades, the school is praised and the head comes to the notice of whoever for presiding over its apparent transformation – and all at a rock-bottom price. What’s not to like?

The teachers needed to guide the recently-qualified, and be the steady hands steering the new breed of teaching schools Michael Gove favours, are precisely the experienced ones who have been left scrabbling around for morsels of supply work by such unscrupulous heads: teachers like Feroze and her sit-com counterpart, Pete Brockman. Meanwhile, the very green and noisily ambitious sail relatively untouched through the storms, rightly confident that they’ll be appointed to responsibility posts – including those requiring “substantial experience” – over their costlier competitors. If they graduate from the educational Sandhurst that is Teach First, they can expect to be fast-tracked to headship with minimal time having been spent at the front.

Forget Waterloo Road, which is about as penetrating of education policy as a sponge needle. Look instead, perhaps, to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, in which J.K. Rowling lampoons New Labour’s obsession with centralised diktat through the odious Dolores Umbridge. But, most of all, look to Outnumbered which has, arguably, provided us with the opposition that The Opposition fails to provide.