Raising standards in schools means sacking more bad teachers

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Chris Woodhead, the controversialist formerly known as Chief Inspector of Schools, suggested eight years ago that 15,000 teachers were not up to the job and should be sacked.

Chris Woodhead, the controversialist formerly known as Chief Inspector of Schools, suggested eight years ago that 15,000 teachers were not up to the job and should be sacked.

He was not exactly wrong, although it was a spectacularly unhelpful way of going about raising standards in the teaching profession. His campaign to undermine teacher morale did a great deal to hold back the improvements that have been made by the Blair government.

Teaching standards have certainly risen since 1997. The quality of new entrants to the profession probably exceeds that of those leaving it for the first time in 20 or 30 years, while teaching methods, especially of weaker teachers, have been improved by some heavy-handed micro-management of the school day.

The Government has, in fact, fulfilled much of Mr Woodhead's prescription by positive rather than negative means. Teachers' pay has been substantially increased, albeit by the absurdly bureaucratic mechanism of performance-related supplements, and many more classroom assistants have been employed. Most important, overall teacher numbers have risen by 25,000. Combined with the natural wastage of many of Mr Woodhead's original 15,000, these trends have raised the general level of competence of teachers in England and Wales.

But not by enough.

In his New Year message, the Prime Minister said his task was "only half done". This is one very specific area in which he was claiming too much. For a government hoping to effect a revolution in education standards, to go down in history as having restored confidence in universal tax-funded schooling, it is still far from half way to its goal.

A higher-quality teaching profession is a condition of further and faster progress towards that goal, and there are many factors that could contribute towards it, including better pay, more flexible recruitment and better training. All these have been achieved, with varying degrees of effectiveness, since 1997. But, to return to Mr Woodhead's original diatribe, there is one element that has been overlooked for the past six years. This is the admittedly negative, but ultimately essential, enforcement of minimum standards.

Our report today that the General Teaching Council has, in the two years it has been responsible for maintaining professional standards, banned only seven teachers from teaching on grounds of incompetence should act as a sharp goad to action.

Margaret Morgan, the chair of the GTC's professional standards committee, politely suggests that local councils may be unaware of their legal duty to report cases of incompetence to her committee. Once again, this raises the question of whether local education authorities are worth keeping, as they have now become a dustbin for a series of statutory tasks to most of which they are not well suited. Perhaps the resources could be better used by the GTC itself to police the standards for which it is responsible.

Earlier this week, we reported that Tony Blair's closest advisers were minded to strip local councils of most responsibilities for education. It is to be hoped that they go further than that. National pay structures should be abolished and headteachers made responsible for employing teachers, with national standards enforced by the GTC.

Rigorous enforcement of minimum standards in the profession may not require thousands of teachers to be banned, but no one can suggest that the number should be as low as seven. Eight years on from Mr Woodhead's counterproductive intervention, the Labour government has improved the positive attractions for good teachers sufficiently to come down hard on the tail of poor performers.

Such tough action should be welcomed above all by teachers themselves, whose collective reputation is being damaged by colleagues who are being kept on the public payroll for the best of motives and the worst of reasons.