Performance related pay was back in the news recently and the chief inspector for schools has recently indicated he intends to improve quality and standards by singling out weaker teachers – it was “pretty straightforward” to identify teachers who were “obviously incapable” he said.
I was a head teacher in east London facing an Ofsted inspection. I knew I had a problem. It was a teacher who had been at the school for years. His classroom always looked like the aftermath of an explosion in a paper mill. His style of delivery was so chaotic that you couldn’t always tell what subject he was teaching. Planning? He couldn’t do it – at least not if it involved writing up schemes of work. Preparation? He ‘winged-it’ like an eagle rising effortlessly on a thermal. Classroom organisation? Not a hope. He couldn’t organise a three-part lesson with pace or progression any more than he could stop the kids excitedly dancing round him vying for his attention to mark their work.
Spending half an hour in his classroom most would conclude “pretty straightforwardly” that this was an “obviously incapable” teacher.
But the other side of his capability was this.
Not only was he charismatic but he passionately loved his subjects – maths, art, design and technology – which he taught with verve and originality. Children loved him and enjoyed being in his class. Parents loved him too, not least because he ran all the after-school sports teams and athletic clubs for both boys and girls and organised umpteen residential school journeys that gave inner-city kids their first sight of a new horizon.
He was a wonderful story-teller who could spell-bind an assembly of 300 kids at a moment’s notice. In five years of working with him, I don’t remember him taking a day off sick. And he had a wonderful sense of humour, creating gales of laughter in a staff room that sorely needed a safety valve for the day’s steam to be let off.
In short, he helped bind the school together. And schools, unlike businesses, are communities where binding people matters.
Of course, I could have got rid of him on a ‘competence procedure’ in no time, but I knew that if I did, I would lose the loyalty of the staff. Not because they weren’t aware of his weaknesses, but because they compensated for them as much as he did himself. They would have felt undermined, insecure and felt their own vulnerabilities under pressure. The team spirit on which schools and the profession must depend would have been destroyed. Parents and pupils would not have understood and certainly not sympathised. And it would be a long time, if ever, before anyone else did as much with the disaffected and disengaged Year 6 boys who proudly pulled on the school’s football shirt every week – more for him than anyone.
As it turned out, the Ofsted inspectors – to their credit – recognised his contribution to the school. They didn’t make an (impossible) issue out of his chronic inability to plan, prepare, organise and assess.
He died a couple of years ago. His funeral was attended by a score of parents and former pupils from across his thirty-year career. His ‘legacy’ in teaching, if one can call it that, included three ex-pupils who went on to become Premiership footballers (one an England international) and a fourth who became a Commonwealth athletics champion and went on to compete at two Olympic Games.
Would that have constituted ‘capability’ for the new school’s inspector? I don’t know.
I’m not defending lousy teachers – if that’s what the new schools inspector means – then I agree they are easy to identify (though we’ve all taught lousy lessons occasionally). Neither am I saying that well-intentioned buffoonery should be tolerated, especially in this profession. Teaching is a professional job that requires high standards of knowledge, skill and technique underpinning huge quantities of energy, dedication and passion.
But as for ‘performance related-pay’ or it being ‘pretty straightforward’ to recognise the ’obviously incapable’… I’m not so sure.
Could you do it?