Handling issues of competency

Written by: John Rutter | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Issues of poor staff discipline or competency can be challenging for school leaders to deal with appropriately. John Rutter offers some advice for getting it right

It is unlikely that any school leader who spends a reasonable amount of time in a senior management role will escape, at some point, a disciplinary investigation into one of the teachers on their staff.

These investigations may come about because of any number of different circumstances. Some will be fairly straightforward to deal with – inappropriate advances towards a pupil, turning up drunk to a lesson or punching a parent will almost invariably result in suspension pending dismissal and a referral (in Scotland) to a Fitness to Teach panel.

In most of these cases the result would be removal from the teaching register. Indeed, there would have to be some pretty extreme mitigating circumstances for this not to happen.

It is more likely, however, that you will have to deal with more complicated issues which have the potential to cause real headaches.

On a basic level the most common cause of an investigation is a grievance between two members of staff. Often, but not always, this involves an unpromoted classroom teacher who feels they are suffering undue pressure in their job from their line manager. Or, perhaps, a promoted member of staff who feels they are being pressured by a senior manager.

In these cases – where a description of “bullying” may or may not be inappropriately applied – the breakdown in trust between those involved can seriously damage a department in your school.

Sometimes the grievance may be between yourself and a member of staff. One of the most important things you can do to combat any difficulties in this situation is to ensure that you are a member of a professional body – the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), for instance, in most of the UK, and School Leaders Scotland (SLS) north of the border.

I have known some senior leaders who maintain loyalty to the union they first joined when they were a teacher, only to find such loyalty questioned when a grievance comes along. Invariably (and probably correctly) union officials will be most defensive of non-promoted members of staff and will represent them in the first instance.

The other issue which may rear its head for you as a senior leader is that of teacher competency. Be prepared for a good, long battle ahead. There are a number of ways this will work and, depending on where you live and what kind of school you run, there will be different authorities involved. Whatever educational regime you work under, however, there are some general principles that can be followed to make the job easier.

Prepare the ground the moment you start

As with most everything in school, how you are perceived and how successful you will be depends on the time you have spent ensuring that basic staff relationships are valued in the first place.

From the moment you begin, role model how you expect people to behave. Talk to them, find out about their families or hobbies, give a little bit of yourself back, sympathise with workloads and make sure everyone knows the reason why you are in the school – for the good of the young people in your care.

Setting the expected standards at the start and making sure that staff know you are human and that you care about them can provide huge dividends if there are tough conversations to have further down the line. People will remember your honesty and integrity, even while you are delivering the messages that may well end their careers.

Differentiate between short-term problems and ingrained incompetence

If you have got to know your staff well and see them on a regular basis you will recognise when individuals are performing below the standards you have previously seen.

There are many reasons why people have short periods of working below par. Some of these may be intensely private. Illness, including mental health problems, relationship issues with partners, problems with offspring, financial difficulties, and the health of elderly family members can all bring people down.

Outside of school, gambling, alcohol or drug problems may also impact on how well teachers do their jobs (but may not necessarily be a sackable offence).

Remember that teachers who were once good can very well be good again. Helping them to become so will be a far better investment than getting rid of them.

In times of teacher shortage, as Professor Dylan Wiliam has recently shown in his book Creating the schools our children need (2018), it is much better to try to improve the performance of a struggling member of staff than it is to try to replace them. In the latter case you may end up with a protracted period using supply – often involving a non-subject specialist – or be faced with a recruitment process pitched at an ever-decreasing field of talent.

Supporting a member of staff through a short period of competency not only makes economic sense but can also be seen as the morally correct decision. However, such a supportive manoeuvre may well be mentally and emotionally draining and undoubtedly time-consuming. You will need back-up from other members of your team who also buy-in to the fact that the teacher needs to be supported.

Sometimes, you will be in it for the long-haul

Occasionally (though luckily this is not a common experience) you may be involved in a competency issue that really should have been dealt with a long long time ago – sometimes as far back as initial teacher education.

Thankfully this does seem to be a less common situation than it used to be, as our universities have become more rigorous about the calibre of students entering the teaching profession.

There are schools, however, where everybody knows of a teacher who should not be in their role. The staffroom abounds with tales of them smoking at the fire escape, of the chaos in their third year classes and of the marking ignored and the qualifications failed.

These teachers do no favours at all to either the school or the children they teach and it is our moral duty to steer them in the direction of a more suitable career.

From the start, engage with your human resources department and get the backing of professionals who understand the legal route you will be taking. In the beginning you will have to engage in the supportive route as you would with a teacher involved in short-term competency issues.

Keep meticulous records of any interventions you put in place and of any impact (positive or negative) they have had.

Set up classroom observations and make sure you judge performance by very strictly set national standards.

Have regular review meetings and be prepared to justify any decisions you make in front of union opposition. Union officials often face a huge dilemma with long-term competency issues. They are there to support the teacher undergoing an investigation, but they will also be acutely aware of the impact of the teachers’ failings on other union members and on the pupils in their care. Be aware they too may need your support.


Disciplinary investigations are not an inevitable part of a senior leaders’ job but they are certainly not unusual. You can make efforts to ensure they do not happen through careful staff recruitment and by building good relationships between all staff, pupils and parents. However, sometimes they may occur because of past histories and other circumstances outwith your control.

Be ready for them, do not shirk from the challenge and always keep in mind that whatever you do should have the best interests of the pupils at its heart.

  • John Rutter is headteacher of Inverness High School. Read his previous articles for SecEd at http://bit.ly/2oPn8oi


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin