In the third of our e-bulletins about staffing, we look at how senior leaders should tackle the sometimes difficult, but important issue of underperformance of staff

I remember a very valuable observation offered to me by an experienced headteacher before I took up my headship. He indicated that he had been naïve when he had started as a headteacher. He thought that all members of staff would be willing to change and could be influenced through rational good sense and persuasion. After a number of years he had come to the sober realisation that some staff were stubborn obstacles, that he had wasted too much time on them and should have tackled them head on much sooner.

This view is in keeping with Jim Collins in his book Good to Great where he talks about not only getting the right people on the bus but also getting the wrong people off the bus if the organisation is to improve. The question is how do you manage this in an even-handed and fair way?

Be brutally honest
The first, and most important aspect is to acknowledge concerns with the member of staff in a direct and honest manner. Most schools will know where there are staffing concerns, but very few will take the step of addressing it in the hope that it will just get better; unfortunately it rarely does without some intervention.

In deciding whether a teacher’s performance is below the level of acceptability I tend to refer to a basic ‘yardstick’ question, ‘would I be happy for my children to be in that class?’ If the answer to the question is ‘no’ then I have a clear obligation to intervene.

Separate the person from the performance
When dealing with the person it is essential to focus on the problem behaviour rather than the person, not unlike the way you might deal with a student, eg I like you but I don’t like your behaviour. This enables the matter to be dealt with in a professional and somewhat dispassionate way. At this point I will often refer back to my ‘yardstick question’ to underline the significance of the situation.

Is it disciplinary or capability?
The initial discussions need to explore the concerns in detail and actively seek the views of the member of staff. It is only through this that you can move to a decision about whether the matter is capability (can’t do) or disciplinary (won’t do). It is advisable to ensure that the member of staff is offered the chance to have a colleague or union representative present so that they have access to support and advice before and after the meeting.

If it is clear that the matter is one of capability then an informal process should be outlined and begin immediately. If the matter is disciplinary it may be necessary to instigate a full investigation before deciding on the next steps. For the purposes of this article we will assume that the matter is one of capability.

Is it a supportive procedure?
It is important that the process begins with the assumption that the member of staff is capable and just needs some support to get them to the required standard. Once this is established the next step is to design a Training and Support Plan that should cover four to six weeks. It is imperative that this document is robust and well planned, as it will be used as evidence if the situation does not improve. In my experience it is essential that a member of the senior leadership team have responsibility for the planning and implementation of the training and support.

The plan needs to:

  • Clearly outline the key issues and concerns
  • Plan training and support activities to address the key issues
  • Identify who is responsible for the training and support
  • Identify dates for all training and support
  • Identify how performance will be reviewed during the period
  • Establish very clearly the standard of performance required
  • Identify a date for overall review with the headteacher.

It may be that the informal period of support has the desired effect, enabling the process to cease at this point, however, if performance continues to give cause for concern then the process must move to the next stage, which could be to extend the informal period or move to the formal stage.

The formal stage
If this is required, a hearing must be called where evidence will be heard from both sides. The process will be similar in most local authorities, but it is worth ensuring that the matter is shared with the human resources/personnel so that you can receive appropriate advice and guidance. This will give you confidence that the matter is not dismissed at a later date on a technicality.

In the hearing it is up to the headteacher to decide, on the evidence presented, whether to give a formal caution. If a caution is given, then a 20-week period of training and support commences, not unlike the informal period outlined above. During this time it is worth holding interim reviews every four to six weeks to maintain an up-to-date picture of progress. If matters worsen, then it may be appropriate to accelerate the process by convening another hearing and issuing a final caution or alternatively if matters improve sufficiently then the formal process may be halted.

Is it all worth it?
It is not pleasant, however, I find it easier by constantly referring back to my ‘yardstick question’ as this reinforces why it is important to take such action. Interestingly, I have also found that other staff have secretly congratulated me on tackling these issues. The reality is that when members of staff do not perform to the required standards they impact negatively not only on students but their colleagues also. This is the aspect that is often overlooked but is very important to acknowledge so my answer to whether it is worth it is a resounding yes!

Collins, J (2001) Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, Random House Business Books

This e-bulletin issue was first published in December 2009

About the author: Kieran McGrane and the leadership team at Federation of West Sleekburn Middle School and Bedlingtonshire Community High School, Northumberland