Education Quandary: How to get rid of a terrible teacher

'My children have a terrible science teacher. Pupils and parents are complaining about him, and the head has agreed that he is no good. But he says there is nothing he can do to get rid of him. Isn't he just being a coward?'
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Hilary's advice

Your children not only have a terrible science teacher, they have a truly terrible head. His job is to make sure that pupils at his school get the education they are legally entitled to, and terrible teachers do not deliver this. So for a head to know that this man is as bad as you say, and to do nothing about it means that he, too, is failing in his job.

And of course there are things he can do. Governing bodies must by law have procedures for dealing with incompetent teachers, and the Government provides schools with a model of how to set these up. And although these are not as straightforward as many would like, it has still become easier – and more common – for them to be activated over recent years.

Under such circumstances a head's job, says John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads' Association, is to initiate "capability proceedings", and collect evidence on which an informed judgement of the teacher can be made. This might include notes from lesson observations, and evidence from pupils' work.

But "terrible" covers a multitude of sins, and bigger problems are often thrown up by teachers who are not disastrous at their job, but just plain mediocre. If "terrible" in this case simply means dull, boring, unengaged, half-hearted, chaotic or hard to understand, then the head needs to find ways in which this teacher can be supported, re-trained, and encouraged to beef up his or her act. Power to the head's elbow can come from local authority advisers, or his own professional body – the SHA gets regular calls from members about exactly such problems.

Of course, a canny head could always choose the other – unofficial, but well-trodden – route of easing someone out by simply making life too uncomfortable for them to stay.

Unfortunately many heads prefer to let sleeping dogs lie, often out of cowardice, but often, too, because, in these days of teacher shortages, they are keen to hang on to whatever they've got. Under such circumstances the governors should be the next port of call for worried parents.

Readers' advice

If our children's head got rid of all his "terrible" teachers, there would only be a handful left. Our children get good lessons in French and biology, but that's it. Teachers lose their work, and are always absent. But the head has always stuck up for staff and made us feel that we or our children were in the wrong. Cherry and Richard Cunningham, Surrey

A few years ago our primary school governors managed to get rid of a teacher. But it took so long, and caused so much tension and unhappiness that one governor said he wondered if it had been worth it. He said they should have been more careful in appointing her. But he also said it was hard to believe the low calibre of many teaching applicants. Harriet Lee, Hampshire

As a head, I would like to point out that not all parents' complaints are justified, and it can be less than straightforward to work out if a teacher is failing. I had a maths teacher who had difficulty with younger pupils but was first-class with A level students. Should I have sacked him after complaints from parents of younger pupils? Or kept him because of his brilliance with older ones? He moved on before I had to decide. John Petersham, London

Next week's quandary

'My daughter is coming up to take her GCSEs. Many of her friends are being booked into Easter revision courses in their weakest subjects at a local independent school, so we are wondering if we should do this, too. The problem is, she hasn't got an obvious weakness, although she could probably use help across the board. But that would be incredibly expensive. What should we do?'

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 3 March, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser