Panorama risks becoming The Daily Mail of broadcasting as it tries to whip up interest in its latest programme, the tabloid-headlined Can I Sack Teacher?
While the BBC is getting Middle England tutting with indignation by using juicy morsels from the programme to excite the media into alarmist headlines like "Incompetent teachers ‘allowed to continue teaching’â€Ž", "get rid of bad teachersâ€Ž", "cosy conspiracy against our children", "why on earth can’t we fire useless teachers?" and "Pass the rotten parcel", the future of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, that has transformed many schools, looks uncertain and major projects are set to face the axe.
As a result, many pupils will continue to endure temporary classrooms and crumbling buildings. At the same time, the Government is pressing ahead with its 'free' schools which will require an injection of new money at a time when the government is cutting spending, and create thousands of surplus places in existing schools, resulting in an even larger drain on stretched budgets.
What is even more alarming, is the presence of asbestos in around 75% of schools in Britain in ceilings, wall linings and pipe lagging. In the last 25 years, at least 178 teachers have died from mesothelioma, a form of cancer linked to asbestos exposure. There are no statistics for pupil fatalities because of the disease's long latency. ATAC's recent audit and Voice's own research reveal that in many schools staff are not aware of the dangers of asbestos; they do not know where it is and are not involved in its management.
Along with other unions and campaigners, Voice has been calling for urgent action to improve standards of asbestos management, and to create an action plan for asbestos in schools including: audits, risk assessments, relevant training and guidance, and for all asbestos to be identified and removed in a phased programme when schools are refurbished under BSF.
Instead of investigating these scandalous, life-threatening issues, Panorama is dragging up Chris Woodhead's infamous exaggeration of "15,000 incompetent teachers" made over ten years ago and recycling comments from the GTC's chief executive misrepresented at the time by the media about "17,000 substandard" teachers.
Keith Bartley was also quoted as saying at the time: "If we want to make more of a difference in more classrooms it’s probably not the incompetent teachers that are the problem. It’s teachers who are struggling with their classrooms day-in day-out part of that is behaviour management in increasingly difficult classrooms" and that substandard teachers should not necessarily be sacked but retrained.
That's the crux of this issue. What do we mean by "incompetence"? If there are 500,000 registered teachers in the UK, not all of them will be 'up to the job', but even Chris Woodhead tells the programme that his notorious estimate represents less than 5% of teachers. The 17,000 quoted were "substandard" not incompetent not the same thing at all.
Poor performance can often be short-term and temporary and driven by circumstances bad pupil behaviour ("behaviour management in increasingly difficult classrooms"), workplace bullying, pressures of the job, meeting excessive bureaucracy and targets, illness, not getting on with a new head teacher .
With help and support, training or even, horror of horrors, changing jobs, these issues can often be dealt with successfully.
The programme and other media are exercised by the statistic that "only 18 UK teachers have been truck off for incompetence in the past 40 years" but perhaps that should be seen as positive not negative. Even using the Woodhead figures, 95% of teachers are not "incompetent". Genuine, ongoing "incompetence" should be investigated and dealt with, but striking someone off from their profession should only be a last resort for the most serious, persistent and irredeemable cases.
The Government wants to abolish the General Teaching Council. What will happen to standards then? Who will strike off the incompetent when it's gone? Perhaps Panorama should investigate that instead of asking celebrities to reminisce about their (not very recent) school days years
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