If your child were held at knife-point by a teacher until the pupil got the right answer – for a joke – would you think it was funny? Probably not. It was this kind of extraordinary behaviour that got one teacher permanently sacked from a school last year. In recent months, the new teachers’ governing agency, the National College for Teaching and Leadership, has barred teachers for offences including swearing at children, pulling hair and punching pupils, falsifying school exam results, fabricating their professional qualifications, falsifying claims for sick pay and encouraging students to copy each other’s work.
Not exactly the kind of behaviour we expect from those who fall under the Teachers’ Standards, which is a government code of practice that requires teachers to be ‘accountable for achieving the highest possible standards in work and conduct,’ and to ‘demonstrate consistently the positive attitudes, values and behaviour which are expected of pupils’. We hear, unfortunately, of students behaving appallingly, and of teachers committing serious offences too horrible to mention here, but what drives teachers to act just like the worst of the slovenly teenagers we’re all supposed to hate? It begs questions about the recruitment processes at their universities and by the schools themselves.
The number of teachers given permanent bans in the last four years is more than double that seen in the previous decade up to 2009/10, with 270 teachers being given ‘prohibition orders’. Does this mean professional standards have drastically slipped? Quite the opposite. In 2012, the Coalition Government responded to fears that incompetence and bad behaviour by teachers was not being dealt with sternly enough, with unprofessional teachers reportedly being allowed back into the classroom under retraining orders and official warnings. The Government replaced the General Teaching Council for England with the new National College, and gave it correspondingly new powers to deal with abuse, swearing and incompetence. The College has less flexibility in the sanctions it can choose for an offending teacher, and has ended up selecting the strictest option, permanent barring, for many more teachers than its predecessor did.
There has also been a huge rise in the number of ‘interim prohibition orders’ – temporary bans – imposed, with numbers growing five-fold in the last year. This can happen because the National College no longer has to see ‘well-founded’ evidence, but rather ‘reasonable suspicion’ of misconduct in order to impose a temporary ban.
Fair application of sanctions
It is of course good news that sloppy, deceitful and disrespectful behaviour by teachers is being properly addressed. But the words ‘reasonable suspicion’ may make more liberal (or less draconian) hackles rise. It is very easy for a pupil having a bad day to complain about a teacher having an off-week, and suddenly that teacher becomes subject to sanctions and temporary bans. Once such a ban is imposed, even if all turns out to be unfounded, the teacher may well be permanently tarnished by having such a ban on his or her record.
This new stricter approach can only be a good thing if it is applied carefully, and in schools where managers are able to manage properly and deal with minor issues swiftly and firmly, without recourse to external sanctions. Meanwhile, it remains important that the universities take an active and responsible approach to training our future teachers, drumming into students the necessity for the highest standards of professional conduct. Otherwise, particularly under stress and overwork, everyone may fall to the lowest common denominator of behaviour.