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Education: Improving teacher quality

The world of education has confused many politicians. It takes some time for any politician to realise what the debates in education are about and, if elected, what they can or cannot do. It is very easy for politicians to...


The world of education has confused many politicians. It takes some time for any politician to realise what the debates in education are about and, if elected, what they can or cannot do. It is very easy for politicians to put forward ideas and very difficult to get those ideas implemented in the manner intended.

There are signs of this in the section ‘Focusing on teacher quality’ in Labour’s consultation document on education. The concept sounds agreeable, but much of the detail will be impossibly difficult to work through. The one idea most likely to be welcomed by the public, and the profession, is the requirement for all teachers to work towards qualified teacher status (QTS). This addresses attempts deregulate the profession and is well described by the slogan of seeking to “re-professionalise teaching”. Unfortunately, little else is as straightforward.

There are two problems with seeking to generally improve teacher quality. Firstly, there is serious ideological disagreement within education as to what a high-quality teacher looks like. Secondly, there is a longstanding problem with retaining teachers due to the high pressure and low rewards of teaching.

If Labour is to address the first point, it is not enough to talk about access to training and requirements to keep up with the latest knowledge. It is necessary to answer the question of who delivers the training and what knowledge is of value. These questions require a clear vision of what a teacher should know.

Subject knowledge is the first problem. A teacher may be accepted into teacher training without a degree in their subject. There are qualified maths teachers out there with history degrees; qualified RE teachers with politics degrees and qualified ICT teachers with philosophy degrees. In primary, the subject knowledge is far broader and unlikely to have been covered by training. While four year teaching degrees might cover more content, these have been open to those with as little as two A-levels at grade D, doing little to attract those with considerable academic ability. Many of those with limited qualifications may well be able individuals with an aptitude for teaching, who have sought out the knowledge they need. Nevertheless, the bar for subject knowledge is so low that it is hard to see how it could be addressed, particularly as there are few rewards within comprehensive schools (unlike grammar schools and private schools) for having excellent subject knowledge.

The second pitfall is pedagogical knowledge. Politicians who trust in the ability of experts in education to pass on this knowledge to the profession have completely missed the extent to which teaching is an ideological battleground. There is no agreement on the aims of education; the best methods of teaching; the means by which the best methods could be judged, or even the importance of teaching in the work of a teacher. There is no consensus over whether teaching is an art or a science, what is the responsibility of a teacher and what should be left to parents, or whether schools are there to make children brighter, or just happier. Where educationalists do agree it is usually because supporters of one position have marginalised dissent, rather than because of a genuine resolution. Any attempt to reward good teachers, or increase training for teachers, raises questions about who will judge what a “good teacher” is and what teachers should be trained in.

As for teacher retention, we have two difficulties to address. The first is how workload, regulation and management have made the job unpleasant. Teachers can be expected to work sixty hour weeks and be judged, not on children’s learning, but on whether they have implemented the latest fad demanded by management. Managers who wish to allow teachers to teach are likely to live in fear of Ofsted and the variable quality of their inspectors, many of whom may well condemn any teacher who is not in tune with the latest fashion.

Without a change in the power structure and workload in schools, the best teachers, and in particular the most highly qualified teachers, will always have reason to leave teaching. The second issue is the remuneration for teaching, where in certain subjects like maths and physics, becoming a teacher will be a huge sacrifice for the well-qualified. Schemes to keep “good teachers” in the classroom won’t help with this, when the judgement of what a “good teacher” is is so subjective and is unlikely to include qualifications.

In order to move policy on, Labour needs to identify what is expected from teachers and whether systems can be created to ensure that those expectations are met. Redistributing power among those already working in the education system, without a clear idea of who stands where on what issues, will not improve the system and might well serve to exacerbate existing problems.

Andrew Old is a blogger and teacher who has worked in several secondary schools. His blog can be found here. 

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