David Cameron’s comments on education, made yesterday, offer refreshing hope that there remains a slim chance that the slick, electable Tory party he manages will still slip up ahead of the next general election. It’s a cliche to say it, but they remains absolutely hopeless at policy, even if they have done a creditable job in opposition (hardly difficult, given Labour’s ongoing implosion). Cameron’s absolutely ludicrous comments, which argued for what he himself called “brazenly elitist” changes to the education system, were perhaps the least thought-out or helpful ideas he’s yet floated. That hope is, however, counterbalanced by a heavy sense of dread. This is what the Tories will be like if they win the next election.
The plan, in case you missed it, is to make teaching “the noble profession” (I thought it already was) by restricting government funding to graduates with a 2:2 or higher, and only paying off the debts of graduates from a narrow pool of “good universities”. We can expect this pool to exclude all the perfectly good ex-Polytechnics in this country, many of which are – incidentally – at the forefront of scientific and technical education; a completely unnecessary measure.
There are so many things wrong with this.
Firstly, and most obviously, we have a teacher shortage in this country – it has been so for many years and to miss this point is crazy. I’m fully behind any politician, even a Tory, who places education at the centre of policy-making, but to ignore the realities of the market when launching new initiatives smacks of ignorance, high-handedness or laziness. We need more, not less, teachers – and which University they studied at is almost entirely irrelevant.
Even if you buy the premise that having attended Brighton University, or possessing a third class degree, is an impediment to becoming a decent teacher, Cameron’s comments are profoundly misleading. Only a tiny proportion of graduates entering the teacher training system have a third class degree in any case; only 3.7% in 2007-8. But Cameron’s comments imply otherwise, and the effect will surely have a demoralising effect on existing teachers, who must suffer yet another politician implying they are no good at their jobs. From the way Cameron launched this pathetic scheme, one might conclude that there are rafts of poor teachers with bad degrees out there. But it’s rubbish – this scheme aims to redress an imbalance which doesn’t exist.
Chris Keates, general secretary of the Nasuwt teaching union, has commented:
“Teaching will never generally be recognised as the high-status profession it is while politicians keep making announcements which implicitly or explicitly denigrate and cast doubt on the quality of teachers currently in service.“Nothing is more demoralising and demotivating than constant announcements of strategies to attract the ‘best’ teachers. They imply that those in post are somehow sub-standard, and the bar for entry has been set too low.”
As the above implies, Cameron’s comments are not supported by evidence. We already have a vigorous evaluation system within both Secondary and Tertiary Education (indeed, the Labour government deserve very little credit for their relentless promotion of QAAs and the ubiquitous Offsted), but the Tories have not made use of the statistics these bodies collect. Where is the data that supports their argument? Instead, they make misleading references to other, very different, education systems which we should want to emulate. Cameron said:
“Finland, Singapore and South Korea have the most highly qualified teachers, and also some of the best education systems in the world, because they have deliberately made teaching a high prestige profession.
They are brazenly elitist – making sure only the top graduates can apply. They have turned it into the career path if you’ve got a good degree”
These comments mean nothing at all. Finland is an exceptionally strange, and self-serving, comparison to make, for Cameron is using an example of an education system which thrives for a completely different set of reasons, and reasons that Cameron’s party would never endorse. He’s being very selective indeed. I’ll quote Unity, from the Liberal Conspiracy blog, verbatim here, if I may.
1. Finland has a wholly comprehensive education system. There are no grammar schools or other selective institutions, to speak of. Finland’s comprehensive schools are expected to take in pupils, irrespective of their personal background and the skills, abilities and aptitudes they possess on entry, and adapt to each individual pupils’ needs.
2. Teacher training courses are massively oversubscribed and, typically, accept only 10% of applicants. Studies looking at the positive outcomes generated by of the Finnish system invariably pay little or no attention to the quality of applicants for teacher training courses. What they focus on is the quality of Finnish teachers on leaving university to enter the education system.
3. All Finnish teachers are required to complete a Master’s degree in either education or a teaching-related subject and all are treated as pedagogical experts.
4. On taking up a teaching post, Finnish teachers are afforded a significantly greater degree of latitude and pedagogical autonomy than their counterparts in the UK.
5. Finnish teachers are expected to teach and, for the most part, are left alone to get on with the job of teaching with little or no outside interference from the state, politicians or even parents.
6. Finland does have a national curriculum, but unlike the UK, their curriculum covers only the general subject matter to be taught, not how it should be taught or how long should be spent on each topic, and teachers have a considerable say over the content of the curriculum.
7. The Finnish system does not make use of national tests or examinations – teachers are trusted to assess pupils’ performance throughout the system based on the individual student’s classwork, projects, portfolios and teacher-generated examinations.
8. Finland does not make use of school league tables, nor could it given the lack of national tests and examinations. School outcomes are measured, but only using data drawn from sample-based surveys and this is only published at system level
9. School exclusions are also unheard of in Finland because they’re not permitted by law – once a pupil enters a school, it’s the school’s responsibility to educate that child whether they (the school) likes it or not.
10. As you might imagine, in a system of that kind, non-teachers (i.e. school governors and local education authorities) have far less authority over schools than is the case in any other OECD country.
I don’t mean in highlighting all this to imply that the Finnish system is perfect, but the above self-evidently is illustrative of an education system which resembles ours in name only. For Cameron to suggest that the high standards of Finnish education could be replicated in the UK purely by virtue of restricting the pool from which we draw teachers is downright ludicrous.
If we’re agreed that right now, less than 5% of new teachers have third class degrees, are we prepared to conclude that this sub-5%-category are the worst teachers? Only Offsted – or the teachers’ own pupils and colleagues – can tell us that, but I’d be surprised if anyone was happy with that assumption. The Guardian, here, gives one example of a highly-rated teacher who would be excluded under the Tory proposals – I’m sure there are plenty more.
Academic rigour is plainly not the key characteristic required of an educator. Perhaps it is at Eton, where class sizes are small and disruptive elements long since factored out of the equation, but at a normal secondary school, with a wide range of students, enthusiasm, patience, clarity and empathy are the most important things. I couldn’t tell you, in retrospect, whether the teachers at my school were intellectual powerhouses, but I can tell you this: the majority of them were good, motivated, lively educators who understood children.
Francis Gilbert is excellent on this in today’s Guardian:
“If you don’t have the right personality, you’ll suffer in the bearpit of today’s classrooms. In my experience, there are four types of teacher who are effective: the despot, the carer, the charmer, and the rebel. And none of them, in my experience, requires an upper-class degree.
[...] But the crucial point here is that none of these teachers learned their skills by getting a good degree: they learned them on the job. All could improve by watching other good teachers in the classroom and learning from their techniques.”
Do we only want educators who breezed through the academic system, often propped up in some respect by pro-active parents, financial security and/or private education? Or do we want teachers who understand the difficulties that many children face, from struggling with complicated concepts to lacking motivation.
A teacher who has, in his or her life, sometimes struggled with academic success is someone that can be a considerable asset – a role model and a friend to students who need guidance. Indeed, we must also consider that the academic heights reached by a 21 year old are of comparatively little significance when the average age of students training as teachers “is mid twenties to early thirties”, and so much life experience can be brought to bear in such a role.
There are, in fact, already two people who are excellently equipped to decide whether people will be suitable teachers – the PGCE course supervisor who recruits would-be teachers, and the headmaster who ultimately (if they qualify) will employ them. Let’s leave these experts to make their informed decisions, and concentrate on more pressing issues, such as funding, class-sizes and (loosening the Government’s stranglehold on) curriculum.
The idea that Cameron’s comments – and education strategy – will encourage the growth of teaching as a ‘noble profession’ is plainly absurd. But it’s more disturbing than that, because it suggests that the Conservative Party has not learned any of the lessons one might hope they had from watching Labour’s management of education over the last 13 years. There are a great many things that might be improved upon by a new government, but the evidence suggests that the same old prejudices preoccupy the Tories. How long before the conversation moves away from “elite teachers” to “elite pupils”, and we see the return of grammar schools?
At the end of Gilbert’s excellent article – which is worth reading in its entirety – he concludes thus:
“Instead of demoralising teachers with his ill-informed comments about what makes a good teacher, Cameron should commit himself to putting proper money and time into training the existing teachers in the system. Instead of paying for the training of a “brazen elite” of graduates, he should improve the wages of all teachers so that we are all treated like an “elite”. His current policy, if implemented, won’t improve the standards of teaching, and will instead further dishearten an already deflated profession”.
I can’t improve on that.