One of the more interesting features of Michael Gove’s recent White Paper, ‘The Importance of Teaching’, was the audaciousness of the title; you would think it contains a hat full of well-considered plans to make teachers considerably better at their job.
But, not so.
Looking again at the section on improving teacher quality – a good few weeks after it was first published – it is hard to feel anything but underwhelmed by its contents.
Peculiar in many ways – the evidence suggests that improving teacher quality is the most effective way of transforming educational outcomes, and it’s reasonably cheap. If there is such as thing as a silver bullet in the complex world of children’s learning, then this would be it.
But what we have in Gove’s plan are crumbs.
There’s a bit on making it harder for some people to train as teachers, such as a Maths graduate with a third class degree, while making it easier for free schools to recruit who they like, teaching qualification or not. (The first idea may sound sensible, but a third-class degree more than accounts for the Maths a primary school covers; we may lose out on some excellent teachers by applying the guillotine so brutally – it also seems perverse that Michel Gove should decide this, rather than a teacher training institution).
There’s a bit too on changing the tests teachers take before they can practice – fine by me, but it’s hardly life-changing – and the idea about fast-tracking soldiers from parade ground to the classroom (a proposal if ever there was one, generated last-minute, late at night – scrabbling around for something to please those who believe our decline can be directly attributed to such things as breathable fabrics, central heating and the end of national service).
And on it goes – a series of policies which are best described as unremarkable, ineffective, daft or (the odd one or two, I admit) mildly agreeable.
The one idea which does emerge as vague justification for the White Paper’s title is the idea of teacher training being carried out in a network of Teaching Schools. This, if carried through, is a significant move, focussing training more clearly on school-based observation and experience.
There is some credit to this idea. During training, the white heat of being in a classroom, thirty pairs of eyes looking your way (or out the window) provides the steepest of learning curves – and there is much to learn, whether student or old-hand, from watching someone else teach.
But teacher-training, as you would expect, already requires many hours spent in schools and in classrooms, so it’s not immediately clear what is that different about Teaching Schools.
This, however, is revealed in the detail: only outstanding schools would be able to secure designation as a ‘Teaching School’ and would then be expected to lead and co-ordinate teacher training and professional development in their area.
This would seem to increase the likelihood of outstanding schools using this as an opportunity to cream off the best new talent. If this were the case, would other schools get a look-in? The best schools may well get better, but the odds seem to be stacked against struggling schools (of course, this also assumes that good teaching and leadership is exclusive to outstanding schools when it could be argued that the real innovation is happening in improving schools).
A further peculiarity of the proposal is that it requries co-operation and collaboration between schools with the lead school ‘driving improvement’ on their patch. While this appeals to a collaborator such as myself, it does run completely counter to every other education policy of note.
When all the incentives and expectations are tipped towards competition, a proposal based on mutuality does seem to jar with the mood of wider public service reform.
More fundamentally, this could weaken the concept of teaching as a profession founded on academic rigour and discipline, when what is required to improve schools is precisely the reverse.
The Government is quick to point towards the success of teaching hospitals but, in doing so, downplays the countless hours of study before a medical student is let near a stethoscope and a pulsing body.
Given the emphasis on ‘learning by doing’, you would imagine a surgeon masters their trade solely by peering over the shoulder of a steady old hand, waiting pensively for the moment where the scalpel is tossed their way and they’re told: ‘your turn’. My hope, if I were the patient, would be that the knife-wielder had read a little about his subject too.
A truly successful professional needs to do more than just watch, observe and repeat. They undoubtedly need the experience of doing, but also the opportunity to engage with education as an academic subject; with the time to explore the theories, ideas and research that underpin what goes on in schools (or what should go on in schools).
For this to happen, the link between the training of teachers and universities should be maintained – and strengthened. At first glance, Teaching Schools seem to be heading in the wrong direction.