HL Deb 24 July 1997 vol 581 cc1506-10

3.6 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether their proposals whereby school teachers will be liable to dismissal with four weeks' notice on the ground of lack of capability have implications for employees in other sectors.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, the Government have no plans to change the legal protections against unfair dismissal that are available to teachers and employees generally. The Government's aim is to put in place speedy but fair procedures to remove teachers who cannot do the job. Local authority employers will be setting up a working group to consider how that can be done.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. I know nothing about education but I have sat for over 20 years on an industrial tribunal. I still cannot understand why there is to be no change in employment law, given that the Minister has said that people can be dismissed within four weeks. I tabled this Question because I am genuinely puzzled about this matter. Is the Minister saying that these people will continue in paid employment but will no longer teach children? What procedure is she suggesting? Many other sectors of the community may follow similar procedures if they wish to dispense with people they consider are not capable of doing their jobs.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, we are not proposing the removal of any statutory protections for teachers or indeed for anyone else. The working group will consider what can be done within the framework of the existing statutory employment protection. During the debate in another place on the White Paper, Excellence in Schools, my honourable friend the Minister for School Standards set a target of six months to remove an incompetent teacher. That does not seem an excessively short time. He also set a target of a matter of weeks to remove a grossly incompetent teacher. We shall see what the working group can do within the framework of statutory employment protection. It is, of course, always possible for someone to appear, after dismissal, before an industrial tribunal.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that if a teacher is dismissed, whatever procedures may exist for rectifying mistakes afterwards, the fact of the dismissal will be known to every member of staff, every parent and every pupil and it will not be practicable in the real world to put the clock back? Is not four weeks a little peremptory to take such an important decision?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, of course it may be difficult to put the clock back after an industrial tribunal. However, what the Government are concerned to do is to protect pupils, and indeed other teachers who are doing a good job, from those teachers who are clearly hopeless and utterly incompetent and are unable to control a class. Surely it is in the best interests of our education system that such teachers should be removed.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the Minister may be somewhat consoled by the fact that we agree that bad teachers should be removed from the classroom. I assume that the teacher would be dismissed within four weeks. That is what the Secretary of State said in another place. How can dismissing the teacher within four weeks be reconciled with giving appropriate notices, an opportunity to improve, putting in support systems, and so on, which is the system at present, without any change in the legislation?

Is there any read across to other sector workers, or are teachers to be treated differently from all other workforces?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, no. Of course teachers will not be treated differently. I have already made it absolutely clear that the statutory requirements regarding employment law will stand. The noble Baroness shakes her head. Perhaps I could finish. No, we do not intend to change the statutory requirements in this respect. I think that the noble Baroness would agree that were a pilot to be found to be grossly incompetent we would wish to remove the pilot rather quickly. Similarly, were we to find that a brain surgeon was grossly incompetent we would wish to do the same.

The procedures laid down by ACAS must be adhered to. It is necessary to give, first, an oral warning, then a formal warning, before dismissal takes place. There would also be the right of appeal. But it is premature to jump to too many conclusions before the working group of local authority employers has had an opportunity to consider the matter.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister's reply. There is no disagreement between us about removing a surgeon from a theatre or a teacher from a classroom who is grossly incompetent. But dismissing a teacher within four weeks and complying with all the legislation seems to me incompatible.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I can only repeat what I said. We have to allow the working group led by the local authority employers to see whether it is possible to remove grossly incompetent teachers in that period. After all, they are damaging the education of children.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, my noble friend may be surprised by a conversation that I had at a social occasion last week—the question is coming. Government proposals to get rid of unsatisfactory teachers within four weeks have some support within the teaching profession. However, the question I was asked was whether that procedure will apply also to incompetent builders, solicitors or accountants.

A noble Lord

And politicians?

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, the question of incompetent politicians was not raised. No doubt it would read across to that also. I hope that my noble friend can provide some succour to the teaching profession.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, perhaps I may clarify. We are not talking about unsatisfactory teachers. We are talking about people who are grossly incompetent; people who are completely incapable of controlling a class. Some of us who went to school many years ago can remember such teachers. It is very difficult for much education to go on in those circumstances.

We are not simply talking about those teachers who are not very good at their job. They will be offered training, support and help. There are no proposals to deal particularly with the other categories to which the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, referred.

Baroness Young

My Lords, my noble friend Lady B latch raises an important point. We all agree that we should find a mechanism for removing grossly incompetent teachers. However, does the Minister agree that she is saying something contradictory? Some of us are chairmen of governors and may have to carry out the policy. The Government have said that their policy will allow the dismissal of teachers in four weeks. If I understand the Minister correctly, she says that the employment law will stand and that dismissal will take six months. Many of us would like to know which statement is true.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, perhaps I may explain again. The working party has been asked to look at ways in which grossly incompetent teachers can be dismissed more rapidly. Perhaps I may explain the current procedures. As the noble Baroness probably knows as she has been a chairman of governors, all schools have negotiated a set of procedures, usually at local level with the local education authority and the teachers' unions. Some of those procedures have five stages of warnings with provision for appeal at each stage, and a term for the teacher to act on each warning. It is no wonder that it often takes up to two years to remove unsatisfactory teachers.

As I said earlier, ACAS recommended a minimum of a formal oral warning, followed by a written warning, followed by dismissal. I cannot say whether it will be possible to go through those ACAS procedures within four weeks. The working group has been asked to look at the issue. It may not be possible.

On the noble Baroness's point about the difference between six months and four weeks, in general it will take at least six months to dismiss unsatisfactory teachers. But we are not talking about unsatisfactory teachers.

The Lord Bishop of Leicester

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that no profession has faced such dramatic change in the past decade as the teaching profession, and that that has affected both recruitment and teaching morale? Can the Minister give an assurance that the latest plans will not affect recruitment and morale?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the purpose of the proposals is to improve teacher morale. There is nothing more demoralising for those teachers who are doing a good job than having to work with a tiny minority of teachers who are completely incapable of reaching the standard that we should all expect a competent teacher to reach.