Comment: There's no easy solution to the problem of `bad' teachers

Government reports, statistical analysis and educational research all have their uses. But they are not the answer to real life problems
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"YES, BUT what is the main point to come out of your research?" The journalist sounded exasperated. I'd just completed a two-year study of several hundred teachers who were alleged to be incompetent and written 100,000 words of deathless prose about it. She, a good reporter, wanted its quintessence of it for about 400 words: all I could say was how intractable and harrowing it had all been.

What on earth was the main conclusion? That there was no single main conclusion? It sounded wimpish, but the craggy reality of research in education is that the situations observed often defy simple explanation. Studying hundreds of teachers who were thought not to be doing their job properly - an under-researched field - was a nightmare of contradictions, tortuous complexities and differing perceptions of events.

Educational research is expected to yield certainties. What "works"? How do you deal with reluctant learners? Can parents make a difference? Does homework aid learning? In reality, research is rarely clear cut, as so much depends on context. What "works" in one classroom may flop if applied elsewhere. Of course, findings can be rigged to look as if they do offer unambiguous messages, but some investigators warp the truth to please policy makers or their project sponsors.

Politicians would love to be told that, as in Hollywood cowboy movies, the teachers in the white hats trounced the teachers in the black hats. The good guys thrashed the bad guys. "All teachers must, in future, wear white hats by law," it would then say in the 2001 Education Act. "Teachers who wear black hats will be dismissed instantly. No appeal will be permitted." Tough talk, seemingly based on research, makes a powerful combination.

Unfortunately, the next time there was a change of government a new policy would emerge. Teachers in black hats now conform to ideological fashion, while teachers in white hats are suspect. They have had their day. Before long somebody's research will be wheeled out, or dusted down, to show that white-hatted teachers ought to be sidelined, so the 2005 Education Act endorses black hats and outlaws white hats.

Anyone doubting this sequence of events should just consider the recent history of educational fashion: setting and mixed ability teaching; prescriptions of teaching methods or free choice; progressivism versus traditionalism; selection by ability or open entry; single sex or co-educational schooling. In the Sixties there were research reports saying co-educational classes were more effective than all-girl or all-boy groups, that streaming and setting were self-fulfilling with a low transfer rate between groups. Today, some schools segregate boys and girls for maths or science and say their results improve, while others make similar claims on introducing setting.

Like most research, our study of teachers' competence, or lack of it, could be used for different purposes. There is good news: a quarter of teachers thought to be incompetent were said by heads to have improved. There is also bad news: three quarters were said not to have improved. There is both consistency and inconsistency of judgement: some teachers agreed they were not up to the mark and decided to quit. Several seen as inadequate by a new head teacher said they had been fine under the previous head, and contested the charge.

It was almost always a searing experience when someone was labelled "incompetent". One person said: "I had severe bouts of depression towards the end of my time at the school and afterwards." Another stated: "I went to hell and back." But the first of these was a teacher, the second a head teacher. Whether it was accuser or accused, such allegations tore at the very soul of the people involved.

In the end, I suppose, we all find whatever we want to find. "Discipline" was a major factor in teachers being labelled incompetent by heads, fellow teachers, or by pupils themselves, so maybe teachers should be stricter. Yet some teachers were regarded as incompetent as they were too strict and frightened their pupils.

Many teachers who improved were helped by support from their school: fellow teachers advising or letting them observe their lessons; heads sending them off to other schools to watch good practice; a lighter or easier timetable. Others received all this and more, and yet still failed, because their marriage or their health had collapsed.

Educational research provides insights and partial answers, rather than a universal cure-all, because it tells us about individuals. I wanted to help the journalist find a message that was simple and uncomplicated - but real people's lives never are.

The writer is Professor of Education at Exeter University