‘Who wants highly qualified teachers?’
This week Nick Clegg attempted to emerge from the shadow of David Cameron and Michael Gove by impressing his own (focus group friendly) opinion on education policy. He reopened the case about whether QTS – qualified teacher status – should exist meaningfully for the teaching profession in England. Of course, his latest speech, at Morpeth School, smacked of political posturing, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. At least the speech has triggered some debate and gave the vague impression Clegg was in possession of a spine.
Here is what deputy Nick said:
“That’s why I believe we should have qualified teachers in all our schools.”
I feel distinctly uneasy using Nick Clegg as my advocate, but thankfully Toby Young (I will wash my hands thoroughly after writing this blog post!) has exposed that policy-light Clegg has actually already rowed back on his apparent staunch defence of QTS here. So let me quickly move on from the Janus-faced Clegg to a real debate about qualified teacher status.
The debate about QTS is bound up in a wider debate about the drive, led by Michael Gove, to initiate deregulation in education – giving Head teachers supposed ‘freedoms‘. In reality, the whole plan for removing the requirements for QTS appears to be more about a desperate attempt to recruit Maths and Science teachers, rather than improving the profession long term. With the botched initiation of the Schools Direct system, whilst the university based ‘Blob‘ is chucked out with the bath water, there is a growing crisis in teacher recruitment.
Removing the requirement for QTS in September was a supposed boon to free up Heads to employ subject experts and other apt candidates quicker. Toby Young has cited that schools such as Eton have long since employed Oxbridge candidates without QTS with great success. If it is good enough for Eton we all ask?
Only, there are holes in the argument to abolish QTS. First, let me redeem myself for agreeing with Nick Clegg, by challenging Toby Young’s Eton argument. The idea that great subject knowledge, gained at Oxbridge or elsewhere, automatically makes a great teacher is unfortunately a pleasant fiction. I don’t have to watch episodes of Jamie’s Dream School – with the likes of Mary Beard and Andrew Motion exercising their titanic subject knowledge, but failing miserably to communicate it to truculent teens – to know that true teaching expertise takes so much more than subject knowledge.
I hereby defend the importance of subject knowledge, but the evidence is proven that expert subject knowledge can be a blunt tool in untrained hands. The concept of the ‘curse of the expert‘ is pertinent. David Feldon’s research provided evidence that many experts are often poor communicators regarding what they do that makes them so, well…expert…in their subject – see here. Hinds, Patterson and Pfeffer also conducted research – see here – that proved that experts were no better in designing instructional materials than relative novices. The novices themselves were more effective in communicating with other novices – imitating the role of the teacher communicating new knowledge to a bunch of inexperienced students.
This research all proves the importance of understanding pedagogy in order to teach with success. It is not just the ‘what‘ of subject knowledge, but the ‘how‘ of pedagogy that teachers must master. The science of learning is a splendidly complex thing. Teaching a class of thirty hormonal teenagers in a rain soaked classroom, on a Friday afternoon, is as complex a task as most professionals will ever have the privilege of facing. This baptism of fire, as practical and real as it undoubtedly is, requires academic understanding and professional reflection.
Understanding how to teach expertly requires expert subject knowledge. It also requires a theoretical understanding of learning, ideally combined with an understanding of cognitive science, neuroscience, psychology, sociology and more! The sweet science is combined with the craft of behaviour management, a deft deployment of leadership skills and no little empathy and understanding of the complex needs of children (and other colleagues for that matter). Put simply, we are not a profession to be cast into the crucible of the classroom without university standard academic training in pedagogy. Whether that be in a university or school based, the requirement for such training stands.
We must rid ourselves of the flawed notion that a first class scientist will become a first class teacher. The correlation may follow sometimes, but I would much rather a common standard for high class training to ensure that this is the case most of the time. If the evidence is that the quality of the training isn’t world class, then rather than throwing out the whole edifice of university-based training, we should collaborate to ensure we create a world class system and an appropriate entry level qualification.
Michael Gove has promoted the value of evidence and research in education; however, by cutting off the links between schools and universities we threaten a relationship between schools and the experts regarding research methodology etc. Characterising university education departments as angry Marxists drenched in socialist venom for the ruling classes is not helpful, nor will it engender an education system that collaborates to the benefit of schools.
In the highest performing education systems, like Finland, Singapore and South Korea, they typically employ from the top 30% of graduates and they are trained with the integrated collaboration between schools and universities. In England, we don’t appeal to the top 30% of graduates. Why is this the case? Crucially, the status of teachers in those high performing countries is commensurate with lawyers and doctors. Working conditions are better than ours. In those countries teaching is celebrated as a prestigious profession. They all require substantial teacher qualifications that confer prestige upon the profession. Finland famously requires a Masters level qualification for all teachers.
Whilst we have cut any requirement for qualified teacher status, the most successful education system in the world, Finland, does the opposite. This should give us pause. We should ask questions about the policies which have led to the abandonment of a basic entry qualification to the profession, whilst simultaneously the recruitment of graduates to key secondary school subjects continues to fall.
If Gove wants to attract the best candidates then he would do better, in my humble opinion, to not focus upon deregulating school structures and qualifications and instead work upon building up the status of teachers and their qualifications. I would argue we should follow Finland and expect Masters level qualifications for all teachers. Singapore creates ‘Master‘ teacher pathways. We could enhance our own QTS qualification, and subsequent ‘master’ pathways, to skilfully balance the ‘what‘ of subject knowledge with the ‘how‘ of pedagogy to a similarly world-class standard. Gove could aim to raise the profession to the standard of other professions, like medicine, by initiating a Royal College of Teachers, which could be the arbiter of such a gold-standard QTS qualification.
Of course, professional capital requires capital investment. Do schools and teachers matter enough to receive such a financial investment in our austere times? The proof will be in the prioritisation.
Yes, achieving QTS does not confer an absolute standard of excellence, yet, but by removing the expectation of QTS we endanger the status of the profession. By removing QTS we belittle the profession at a time when we need to raise the status of teaching to world class heights if we are to succeed.
In my view, a teacher training qualification is required. If the one we currently have isn’t good enough, let’s adapt it and devise a world-class entry qualification worthy of our profession and the students under our care.