The Darwinian Paradigm

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The Darwinian Paradigm is, for me, ‘normal science’ (as described by Kuhn).

Anything that is normal, for me resides in a Darwinian Paradigm. In short, I write about ‘normal’ stuff.

This is my blog on science education, science and random things.

It is my ‘normal’. It may link to some of my professional work on education (teacher education) and my writing on education, science or evolution vs creationism.

I’m not the best blogger on the block, but I hope you like some of what I write.

Why urban myths about education are so persistent – and how to tackle them

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The Conversation

James Williams, University of Sussex

As children across England and Wales go back to school, it’s worrying to think that in many classrooms, teachers will be starting the new term believing in teaching “methods” that have been debunked by research evidence.

One of the most persistent “edumyths” is learning styles – the idea that there are a number of styles of learning, such as visual, aural or kinaesthetic – and that certain children respond better if teaching is directed towards their preferred learning style.

Learning styles have been far too easily accepted by some schools and teachers despite the lack of evidence of their effectiveness. The prevalence of references to learning styles in School Centred Initial Teacher Training (SCITT) programmes from Durham, to Surrey and Cornwall shows how ingrained the concept still is. Despite learning styles being debunked, the concept still forms part of the formal school-based training of a number of teachers across a number of subjects.

So why, in the face of such damming evidence, are edumyths still accepted and used by schools and teachers?

Cat out of the bag

A simple Google search for “learning styles” reveals 5.9m links. Many websites are devoted to it alongside other related educational “approaches” and variations on the theme. Sites provide “testimonials” of effectiveness, but very few provide any solid peer reviewed evidence to back this up.

Studies from the fields of psychology and medical education have shown the futility of learning styles as an effective teaching approach. A systematic and critical review of learning styles catalogued 71 different learning styles models, 13 of which were identified as “major models”. Suffice it to say that, as education scholars Myron Dembo and Keith Howard concluded in a 2007 paper on the use of learning styles in education:

Learning style instruments have not been shown to be valid and reliable, there is no benefit to matching instruction to preferred learning style, and there is no evidence that understanding one’s learning style improves learning and its related outcomes.

Spread of education learning myths

From the ubiquitous Brain Gym that flourished in schools in the late 1980s and early 90s, to the idea that some people use one side of their brain more than the other, or the “fact” that we only use 10% of our brain, exactly how these myths spread is a complex and difficult to understand process.

Who is to blame?
Monkey Business Images/

The blame has been laid at the door of university initial teacher training courses, as well as commercial companies, individual “education consultants” and some teachers. Even the Department for Education (DfE) pedalled the view that universities promoted “useless” theories in teaching and learning.

Yet, a survey by the Wellcome Trust, reported by the charity Sense about Science showed that teachers were not getting learning styles predominantly from their university teacher training. Instead, they:

Commonly come across neuromyth-based methods by word-of-mouth – from their institutions (53%), individual colleagues (41%), and from training providers (30%), who are often linked to those promoting neuromyths.

Are myths necessary?

Myths quite often have some basis in reality. For learning styles, there’s no doubt that people will report a preference for how they learn, but this does not mean they learn better using that “style”. Learning styles also gain traction in the education community because of a general conflation with a push to deliver content in the classroom in a variety of ways. How information is presented to children needs to be varied, if only to stop boredom kicking in. The best teachers have a variety of approaches that mix and match the best learning experiences for their children.

Variety in how information is presented and ideas are explored is not a bad thing. The problem is that this can also lead inadvertently to providing evidence that the idea being used, far from being a myth, actually works. On many occasions I have had teachers tell me that learning styles work, regardless of what the research evidence says. At this point, it’s worth remembering the Hawthorne effect: simply doing something different can have an effect and that effect can be a positive one, but the effect may not be real.

Training is key

The way to tackle edumyths surely must be to provide teachers with the evidence and show them that the idea they accept as true is actually a myth. If only it were that simple. The social psychologist Norbert Schwartz and his colleagues showed that often, when presented with compelling evidence that certain statements were false, people often mis-remembered the false statement as being true.

The move to sideline or even remove universities from initial teacher education and increase school-based teacher training programmes may have the opposite effect to that hoped for by the DfE. Instead of edumyths and “useless” theories dying out, they might become more prominent and even more difficult to remove from teaching. Once misconceptions are implanted, they are very difficult to remove. If teacher education shifts further towards a school-based model of delivery, the potential for implanting misconceptions increases exponentially.

Teachers need two things to improve their practice and eliminate what doesn’t work in favour of what does. First, training in how to look beyond the attractive yet empty claims of the peddlers of educational snake oil and second, time to undertake effective professional on-the-job training that has been shown to be both reliable, rigorous and effective.

James Williams, Lecturer in Science Education, Sussex School of Education and Social Work, University of Sussex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What’s happened to democracy in our education system?

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Democracy is a strange thing. The basic idea – that people have a right to decide is fine in principle, but what if the ‘people’ make the wrong choice? Who decides what’s right or wrong? I voted to remain in the EU referendum. 17 million people disagreed with me only 15 million agreed.

I still believe the choice was wrong, but try telling that to a gloating brexiter. “Who cares what you think”, I’ve been told, “we won so shut up and accept it”. I can argue that there were lies and deceit (actually on both sides) or that the question was too simplistic given the complexity of our relationship. I can even point to the drop in the value of the pound – which, by the way, increased the cost of my short summer break by hundreds of pounds. All I get back is “WHO CARES, WE WON!” Democracy has been reduced to a win/lose game.

You choose your side and hope it’s the winning side.

Education is not a game

The win/lose game has been going on in education for many years. But it’s never been as intense as in the last six years. A politician, by the name of Gove (remember him?), wanted to ‘win’ at all costs. He had enemies that he needed to defeat. His enemies were the enemies of his predecessors who challenged, but never fully won their battles with them. The teaching unions, the local authorities, the university education departments were all ‘bad guys’; ‘the Blob’; ‘enemies of promise’; ‘Trots’, that needed eradicating. Kill these groups and education would be back to where it should be – selective, ordered, pumping children full of facts and full of the traditional academic subjects and none of this trendy, irresponsible child-centred learning.

If it works for them, it’s bound to work for us

Gove’s bullying, autocratic narrative, right from the moment he took office, was breath-taking. He cherry picked successes from all over the world and simplistically and wrongly decided that a simple transplant of ideas would ‘fix’ a system he saw as broken beyond redemption. Only wholesale change would do.

Shanghai maths was lauded as the only reason students in the far east succeed where our students fail. Gove, then Morgan, now Gibb completely ignore the social and cultural context and the conditions under which teachers work in China. The narrative persists today – Shanghai maths is still being touted as ‘the answer’, and still the social context and the working conditions of the teachers is ignored.

Expert panels were hired for a curriculum review and summarily dismissed if they came up with the ‘wrong’ answer – that is, something Gove didn’t like. His tenure became so bad he was considered toxic and a threat to the success of the Conservative party in the 2015 election. He was summarily dismissed. Since then, his fall from grace has been quite spectacular.

The ‘Big Idea’ – every school better than the average

Gove’s ‘big idea’ was the academies programme. Here’s where democracy (not to mention knowledge of averages) really left the building, seemingly never to return. In ‘consultation’ after ‘consultation’, in vote after vote, plans to convert schools were rejected. The DfE response was, to be fair, consistent. ‘The only way to improve any school is to turn it into an academy’. Gove removed governing bodies that objected and put in place puppet governors who would do his bidding. The outcomes of any, seemingly all, consultations were systematically ignored. At the same time, parents were being told how important ‘parental choice was’ how parents should be able to choose where to send their offspring.

This paradox of simultaneously promising a democratic education system where parents have freedom of choice, whilst denying, in an overtly autocratic way, any dissent over the government ‘choice’ of who and how schools should be run did not seem to trouble the political elite at all.

It’s fine to ignore the will of the people, except…

The current government could ignore the outcome of the referendum; it was a close run thing, 52% for exiting the EU – 48% for staying. But, quite rightly the majority would say, that’s undemocratic. However, ignoring a parental vote where over 90% were against conversion to academy status, e.g. at Downhills Primary, was considered acceptable to the DFE.

There have been many controversial academy conversions, Downhills Primary school being an early, acrimonious and bitter fight against academisation which was lost. Others have been able to resist conversion, such as Hove Park school in Brighton. But the key thing in all these fights and in the programme of academisation which still rolls on unabated today is the loss of local accountability and the defeat of democracy.

Pedantic semantics

I know that a consultation and a referendum are two completely different things, but they are both tools of democracy – a way for the people to be heard, listened to and changes made in accordance with those views. But, as I was reminded once by a member of the DfE Press Office, ‘a consultation is not a negotiation. We are under no obligation to change our plans or abide by the results of a consultation. It’s merely something we have to do, consult’. Well the answer to the embarrassment of ignoring consultations is of course to change the law and remove the need to consult at all – which the DfE now plans.

Autocratic Failures

Recently we were told about the Lilac Sky Schools Trust which, having failed to improve schools under its control, has just ‘handed back’ to the DfE control of nine academies across Kent and Sussex. Here we also see another complete failure of democracy. These schools will be brokered to new Multi Academy Trusts – most likely at a considerable cost to the taxpayer – with no consideration of what parents or teachers would like to see happen.

The academies programme has systematically failed to live up to its expectations as the sole tool of school improvement. This fact has never been admitted or entertained by Gove or Morgan. Whether Justine Greening succumbs to the will of her party, and is still intent on destroying the State Education system via the academies programme (most likely with the goal of full privatisation) remains to be seen, but surely failure after failure must raise serious questions about the academies programme? Perhaps she could be honest with the electorate just once and admit that academisation is not a magic bullet, but a vast vat of snake oil sold by a charlatan salesman with no experience or qualifications.

Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment
By Clark Stanley (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

Where lives matter, democracy is essential

The future of our education system is not a win/lose game to be played by politicians settling old political scores against their perceived ‘enemies’. With matters such as the future education of our children at stake, an autocratic approach that ignores the key stakeholders cannot be seen, even remotely, to be democratic. It is quite simply a dictatorship. By all means where matters are relatively inconsequential be autocratic – a democratic, consultative approach for every decision would result in no decision ever being made. But these are not inconsequential decisions, they are major decisions that will alter the educational landscape for decades, perhaps permanently.

As Mr Spock says at the end of Star Trek III: The Wrath of Khan (1982), “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh…” Kirk finishes “…the needs of the few.” Spock continues, “Or the one.” Since 2010, the needs of the one – the Secretary of State for education – have vastly outweighed the needs of the many. It’s time democracy was restored to our education system and the needs of the many become the driving force for change.

Love and Hate – two powerful human emotions

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There are two young children at the moment who will be struggling to understand the concept of hate. A hate so powerful it has taken the life of their mother. The children of Jo Cox, Labour MP for Batley and Spen, who was senselessly and brutally murdered could easily grow up to hate. I sense, from reading a statement made by Brendan Cox, their father, that he will do everything in his power to stop that happening.

In America, there are many families who are also struggling to understand why their loved ones were killed, simply because they loved someone of their own sex. Think about that, 149 people were killed, scores of others injured, not because they hated, simply because they loved.

I struggle to comprehend this.

On my way to work I pass my local primary school and since the horrific events in Orlando, they’ve flown the rainbow flag at half-mast. They shared the grief, recognised the love and did not buy into the hate.

There is much we can do as a society to stem the rise of such a destructive hate. One simple, yet important step is to think carefully about what we say and how we say things. We must exercise caution and apply a logic to our thoughts to ensure that we do not unwittingly feed the hate that dwells in some people.

Yet it seems to me that both caution and logic are missing from the campaigns of many of the high profile politicians trying to ‘win’ our vote in the upcoming EU referendum.

I was 16 when we last voted, but if I could, I would have voted to join. In this vote, I will vote to remain. My vote however hasn’t been ‘won’ by either the ‘in’ or ‘leave’ campaigns.

Both sides have twisted facts, told half-truths, spun stories trying to persuade us to vote ‘their way’. Neither side has convinced me. I’ve decided how to vote by looking beyond the hate and rhetoric.

What disturbs me most during this whole campaign is the stirring of a form of hate that I loathe. The ‘problem’ we’ve been told by both sides is ‘people’. ‘Too many people’ or ‘the wrong sort of people’ worst of all ‘foreigners coming here’. When it’s alleged that the cause of many of our ‘problems’, from housing to healthcare from school places to jobs, is defined by the existence of certain groups of people, you aren’t going to promote love, quite the opposite.

It has been, for me, a campaign characterised by hate.

Love and hate are powerful human emotions, so powerful they can unite or destroy, not just individuals, but whole countries. Jo Cox’s husband summed hate up perfectly for me, hate, he said doesn’t have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous.

Too often, rather than attacking problems, we’ve end up attacking people. This builds resentment and that leads to hate.

The world is full of problems, but if all we do is attack people, for their beliefs or their ethnic origins, for what they have or do not have, then we poison the minds of others. They see the attacks and buy into the mistaken belief that the problem resides in the existence of ‘these people’. That’s when the hate takes hold.

Ultimately there’s just one race – the human race. We all inhabit the same planet, we all depend on each other and our ecosystem. Yes, I know that there are different cultures, religions, characteristics etc. that ‘define’ groups of people, but if you look at yourself in a strictly biological sense, you might be surprised.

I recently had my DNA analysed to look at my ancestry. I was surprised to find that I have 39% Irish, 32% British, 14% Scandinavian and 1% Iberian Peninsula heritage. I know this is not something to rely upon 100%, but it set me thinking. If we did vote to leave, am I ‘British’ enough to stay? I look, sound and behave very British (I’m told). Yet my DNA tells a different human story that I’m now motivated to investigate. Scandinavia? Really? The Irish I can see, I am Welsh, born in Wales – St Patrick, patron Saint of Ireland, was, after all, Welsh.

It’s easy for people to make assumptions about others and for those assumptions to be quite wrong. If we make too many assumptions, it’s a short jump to making illogical and incorrect conclusions. The path to hatred then is a very short one.

White Paper – No Forced Academisation: More of a U-bend than a U-Turn

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I’m no plumber, nor am I a professional stunt driver, but I do know the difference between a U-turn and a U-bend.

Today Nicola Morgan announced that no longer would she be seeking to bring in legislation to force all schools to be or on the road to being an academy by 2020/22.

Predictably the twittersphere erupted with joy at this apparent U-turn. Except it is no such thing. The objective of full academisation remains. It will be achieved in other ways.

The press release making the announcement has some disturbing detail which people need to be aware of, especially as it shows this is by no means a U-turn.

Looking at the press release in more detail exposes the concession that’s really an admission that it was never going to succeed in the first place.

…the government is committed to every school becoming an academy. This system will allow us to tackle underperformance far more swiftly than in a local-authority-maintained system where many schools have been allowed to languish in failure for years.

So no change here from their direction of travel and their mistaken belief that academisation achieves improvements in schools faster than leaving them in LA hands, a claim that has been refuted time and again.

Since launching our proposals in the education white paper, the government has listened to feedback from MPs, teachers, school leaders and parents.

It is clear from those conversations that the impact academies have in transforming young people’s life chances is widely accepted and that more and more schools are keen to embrace academy status.

I don’t know about you, but either this is a sign of delusion or bad hearing. Where is the evidence to support these claims? All the feedback I’ve seen and read about is negative towards forced academisation, including many, many Conservative LAs and MPs.

The ‘listened to feedback’ is of course the important phrase. It’s Nicky Morgan’s hopeful ‘get out of jail free’ card. It’s not a U-Turn but, a listening government that cares about what the experts think and is willing to change things.

And now we come to the sting in the tail – the devil in the detail or whatever you wish to call it.

In addition, the government will bring forward legislation which will trigger conversion of all schools within a local authority in 2 specific circumstances:

  • firstly, where it is clear that the local authority can no longer viably support its remaining schools because a critical mass of schools in that area has converted. Under this mechanism a local authority will also be able to request the Department for Education converts all of its remaining schools
  • secondly, where the local authority consistently fails to meet a minimum performance threshold across its schools, demonstrating an inability to bring about meaningful school improvement

These measures will target those schools where the need to move to academy status is most pressing. For other high-performing schools in strong local authorities the choice of whether to convert will remain the decision of the individual schools and governing bodies in question.

And this is how they think they can achieve the full academisation without the need for legislation.

Having starved LAs of funding and making them pay for schools that wish to convert or absorb the debt of any school in deficit it forces to be an academy, it’s clear that many LAs will have a real problem. It’s likely that the leafy Conservative LAs will be far less affected by this than many other LAs struggling in areas of high deprivation etc. Cheekily they say that they will grant an LAs request for remaining schools to convert – and you can bet that they will shout out loud that they weren’t ‘forcing’ it was a ‘free (Hobson’s)’ choice.

The performance threshold will also be a smoke screen. Having seduced as many high performing schools as possible to convert – often with the lure of cash, what’s left is bound to be ‘underperforming’ so the system is gamed towards LAs ultimately losing their schools.

No doubt there will also be the spectre of forced academisation for schools that don’t meet the DfEs ‘targets’ (even though they can change a target to an aspiration on a whim and duck any requirement to meet it – I give you the National Broadband target and, today, the target for forced academisation becoming an ‘aspiration’).

Recall that GCSEs, and National Tests at KS2 have, by the DfE’s own admission become much harder, more rigorous. It’s likely that pass rates will fall. After all that’s what they wanted when they took office. Pass rates were too high, they said, artificially high as exams were dumbed down. This being the case, finding ‘failing’ schools will become much easier – especially, I suspect in the primary sector where the KS2 tests seem to me to be ridiculous for 11 year olds.

So why a U-bend and not a U-turn? It’s all about the direction of travel. In a U-Turn the direction of travel is reversed. In a U-bend the direction of travel of the water detours, but ultimately still it goes down the drain. It seems the DfE is willing to flush our education system down the drain in an effort to fulfil their education ideology – regardless of the evidence and even the protestations of their own more moderate MPs and supporters.

One thing is sure. This is a huge climb down and humiliation for the Secretary of State who only two weeks ago said  there is “no reverse gear” on the government’s plan to turn all schools in England into academies by 2020 well, she found the reverse gear on the legislation bus, but the academy car is still going in the same direction, no reverse gear there it seems.


The Mysterious Case of the Disappearing Schools. Or “Of Course It’s Bloody Privatisation”

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A brilliant excoriation of all those who suggest that forced academisation is not a danger to the independence of our local schools.

Disappointed Idealist

This week, Nicky “I’m not Michael Gove, Honest” Morgan and her chum George “I’m not Satan, Honest” Osborne, announced that every school in England would be forced to become an academy by 2022. This has proved, to put it mildly, a little controversial. Opponents of academization, both forced and unforced, have generated a petition of more than 100,000 signatures already, while unions, teachers, politicians and Mumsnet(!) have united in fairly vitriolic opposition. Even Tristram Hunt and David Blunkett came out against this, which tells a remarkable story in itself. However, the “Glob“, as Francis Gilbert termed the very vocal and influential minority who actively support Gove’s privatisation agenda, has been predictably active too. More chaff has been thrown out by supporters of this policy in the last week than the RAF chucked out of its bombers over Germany in 1944, and all with the same intent: to obscure…

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An obituary: farewell to your Local Education Authority

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James Williams, University of Sussex

By announcing that all schools will be expected to become academies, George Osborne has foretold the death of local authority involvement in education.

Born on December 18 1902, Local Education Authorities (LEAs) will likely have their life support switched off sometime in 2022, by which time all schools will be expected to be on course to becoming academies. The local authorities will leave behind a number of precious local services, their future somewhat uncertain.

Despite their long life, LEAs have not been universally popular, making a number of enemies: the late Margaret Thatcher and former education secretary Keith Joseph, to name but two. Between them they killed off the Inner LEA, but the behemoth that was the remainder of the local education authorities remained.

The death of local education authorities then seemed inevitable after they lost many of their powers of control over schools with the 1988 Education Reform Act. For many years since, their role has largely been one of scrutiny and support, but for some this will be very badly missed.

This time, the Conservatives intend to deliver a fatal blow. But there are five ways that schools and children will lose out from the demise of local authority control of education.

1. A local champion for vulnerable children

Local authorities must currently engage with parents and schools to ensure that the right provision for every child is available locally. Ensuring the specific needs of every child are met is hugely complex and even local authorities struggle to meet their responsibilities at times.

As education is fragmented, there will be concerns over how parents will be able to negotiate the minefield that is school admissions, with each academy or trust being its own admissions body.

Legally, local authorities have the responsibility to provide a school place for every child. If every school is an academy, local authorities or councils will have no power to require schools to expand their intake or take on any child. Already, LEAs are warning that finding school places for all is becoming “undeliverable”.

Currently, parents can take a local authority to a tribunal if they feel the needs of their child are not being met. It’s unclear how this will work if the local authority in effect ceases to exist.

2. A local vision for schools

With the demise of LEAs, many schools will be run by multi-academy trusts (MATs) – chains of academies run by the same sponsors. Many trusts operate a number of schools, sometimes in different local authority areas. Some may know more about the local community than others.

The only answer the Department for Education has for under-performing academies or trusts is the transfer of schools from one trust to another. This is likely to increase, alongside the incorporation of standalone academies into existing and new trusts.

The governance of academy chains has been questioned, most recently by the current head of schools inspectorate Ofsted, Michael Wilshaw, who highlighted several underperforming MATs.

Ultimately, it is likely to be the vision of the trust, not the community, that schools will adopt – and parents will have to live with it.

3. Local forum for school improvement

School improvement arises from the efforts of people, not structures. A structural change will not deliver long-term sustained improvement in itself.

Local authorities have provided a platform for a range of collaborations between heads, teachers, various schools and local and national services. Admittedly, some authorities are better at this than others, but the setting up of a free market competitive model for school governance where academy trusts actively compete rather than collaborate cannot be a good model for mutual improvement.

4. Loss of essential services to schools

Local authorities provide many services to schools, from the vetting of contracts and human resources management, to payroll services and delivering expertise in commissioning, tendering and procurement. They also provide many support services from school transport and peripatetic music teachers, to anti-bullying advice and educational psychology services.

Pens poised for new contracts.

With academies funded directly by central government, local authorities will lose much of their funding as a result of the push to academise. This may well put some of these services at risk or increase their cost. If they are large enough, some MATs may be able to replicate the cost savings of local authorities by clubbing together and contracting such services. But small rural schools who depend on services offered by the council may struggle to afford them.

5. Learning from the past

The Conservatives have learned from Labour’s failure in the 1960s to completely eradicate grammar schools. The process of ending selection was resisted by some, most notably Kent, and the law never changed to ban or force grammar schools to close – it just prevented the opening of new ones.

They also learned from their own failure in the 1980s and 90s to abolish local authorities and establish more independence for some schools under what was called the grant maintained programme. Following Labour’s landslide election victory in 1997, a new act was passed in 1998 that reversed the grant maintained status of schools.

Putting these laments for the demise of the LEA aside, the evidence that academies are the best model for school improvement is severely lacking, especially for the poorest students. Research suggests that underperforming schools actually improve much faster under local authority supervision.

What the future holds for local authorities and education is extremely uncertain. The devil will be in the detail of the government’s planned legislation.

The Conversation

James Williams, Lecturer in Science Education, Sussex School of Education and Social Work, University of Sussex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A Spat with a SpAd Part 3: QTS, or not QTS, that is the question

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QTS or not QTS, that is the question.
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and arrows of the DfE,
Or to take arms against a sea of Ministers,
And by opposing end them?

To die: to sleep; To teach
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That every DfE policy brings; ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;

To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death
When we have but lost to workload and stress
What dreams may come of being free to teach

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.

With sincere apologies to William Shakespere

I never understood Hamlet when it was a set text in English at my grammar school. When I got the chance to take part in a production of Hamlet with the West Glamorgan Youth Theatre in 1976 (I was the Player King), I understood it so much better.

My first English teacher – who failed to inspire me,  was unqualified – he had a great Oxbridge degree, was a classics man through and through and I swear he wore a gown while teaching (I think that last memory is not real, however, gowns were worn for assembly). I passed the 11+.  When the grammar school was shut in 1972, a result of Labour’s blitz on selective education in the mid-1960, many of the teachers, including him, were re-deployed to the new comprehensives. He continued to teach as if it was still a grammar school.

I had a few other teachers who were ‘not qualified’ (many I didn’t know were not qualified until I spoke to a former teacher some years later about my time in secondary education and he told me who was and who wasn’t qualified).

I failed English literature, twice. My chemistry teacher wasn’t qualified – but I had extra tuition to get my O level (Grade C). My best teachers were the young ones, the ‘bright new things’ from the teacher training colleges.

But this anecdote is not the core of my argument for having qualified teachers over ‘unqualified’ teachers.

I have a much more pragmatic approach to the QTS vs No QTS debate.

Why wouldn’t we want our teachers qualified to enter a profession that is so important?

What on earth makes someone think that simply having a degree in a subject makes you suited to be a good teacher? Why would we not want teachers to be trained to understand how children develop and learn and what’s wrong with providing teachers with skills that will help them be good or excellent classroom practitioners?

A Job vs A Profession

Teaching is not just a job. I’m not going down the ‘vocation’ path (that’s not a bad path, but it doesn’t mean those with a passion for being a teacher and wanting to teach will make good teachers). Jamie Martin’s (@jamieamartin1) core argument is to ‘let Heads decide’. If they wish to hire someone to teach who has no formal teaching qualifications then let them.

Until Gove abolished the need for QTS in academies and free schools, all Heads could employ ‘unqualified’ teachers – they were called instructors. So, that choice already existed. This is not some new ‘freedom’ that Heads have been gifted by Gove. In some instances Heads found it very difficult to employ someone for a specialist role, or they had difficulty in getting a specialist teacher say for maths or physics. For the latter, they would try to get them on a training route to gain QTS, perhaps via the GTP route. If the specialism was really niche they could employ them as instructors. In the 1970s one of my school rugby coaches was a member of the then almost unbeatable Welsh rugby squad – he took us for rugby and nothing else. He did not fulfill the duties of a full teacher.

Here then is the difference, instructors could not fulfill the complete role of a teacher. All Gove has done is make it cheaper to hire ‘teachers’ by abolishing the need for academies and free schools to hire trained professionals. Perhaps he was fully aware that school budgets were due to be severely cut in time. Staffing costs are a school’s biggest expenditure. This makes it the area where most saving could be made, provided the law was changed to stop any form of early years pay progression and the need for any formal teaching qualifications. The evidence is that unqualified staffing is on the rise.

Teaching is not just a job, it is a profession. The difference between a job – something you ‘do’, where perhaps your training has just been about the ‘mechanics’ of the job the day to day stuff – and a profession is that a professional is educated about the profession and not only are they trained in what to do, they also understand why they do it and they are on a continuous path of learning, greater understanding and improvement.

Who needs training? A good degree is all that matters!

Talking to Heads myself, of course they much prefer trained staff over unqualified staff – no matter how good their qualifications in a subject are. There are exceptions, e.g. Richard Cairns of Brighton College, one of the top private schools, does not believe that QTS confers any/much advantage. He would prefer to hire Oxbridge graduates direct. As a private school Head he can exercise that choice freely – as can all other Heads at private schools. But is this because an Oxbridge or even a Russell Group degree prepares you better for teaching? Or is it more likely that those who have been to Oxbridge are better placed to coach those students in how to work the system to their advantage and get, like them, to Oxbridge?

Increasingly in my time in ITT I see private schools hiring more and more qualified teachers and putting staff through QTS. I do not see them decreasing the number of qualified teachers in favour of the good Oxbridge degree (or any other good degree for that matter).

Then came a bizarre part of my conversation with Mr Martin.

Well, the evidence from the many calls, e-mails and conversations I have daily with Heads and our partnership schools is that most state Heads (including academies) want qualified teachers. I know that our Sussex trainees have been employed in all schools types from top private schools (including Brighton College before Mr Cairns tenure) to high profile free schools, such as the West London Free School. Our employment rate, consistently over 90% with, often, 100% in Primary and many shortage subjects, show our trainees to be coveted by our schools.

I’d be interested if any Head could cite a case where excellent QTS NQTs were passed over for unqualified teachers – excluding of course because of any cost related reason. A newly qualified teacher would start on around £22,244 but the unqualified rate could be as little as £16,298. Mr Martin would also abolish these pay rates allowing Heads (actually governing bodies and MATs) to set their own rates. A free market with choice. But as Simon Jenkins argues well in a recent Guardian article, the free market and schools do not go well together.

But the thing that struck me most was the claim from Mr Martin that he didn’t favour extensive training. Why? Surely you would not want someone who is a professional to not have been trained? He cited many large companies that take people on without training and then train them on the job.

(the phrase ‘train on the job’ came up a number of times and I also refer readers back to part one where I show that uni training is as much on the job as school direct). He also mentioned soldiers, but as I reminded him you would not send a ‘soldier’ straight into a battlefield situation to ‘train on the job’ all soldiers have basic training as a minimum before they get anywhere near a battlefield or a conflict zone.

Earlier in the conversation, Mr Martin stated that:

It’s still politicians choosing how people are trained. Remember, School Direct is the favoured approach and any limits put on numbers are put on HEIs first and School Direct Last. Politicians are also still determining that more places should go to School Direct regardless of its success rate.

Do ‘Qualified’ Teachers Make Better Teachers?

It would be nice if there was research which showed that teachers who were qualified (i.e. trained and certified as teachers) had a more positive effect on student achievement than those who were not. One extensive piece of research which shows just that was carried out 15 years ago in the US. It concluded, amongst other things that:

Among variables assessing teacher “quality,” the percentage of teachers with full certification and a major in the field is a more powerful predictor of student achievement than teachers’ education levels (Darling-Hammond, 2000 p.32)

In other words, by all means strive to hire those with good degrees, even masters or PhDs if you like, but combine that with training and certification as a qualified teacher and you will get better teachers overall.

What About the Trainee Teacher – do they have a choice in this?

There is also a fundamental ‘missing element’ here – so far the conversation has been all about Heads (and teachers) choosing how teachers should be trained, with his insistence that School Direct is the preferred choice of some (many?) Heads – though evidence as to how many actually wanted the system initially is glaringly absent.

What about those who wish to train to teach – they must have choice also. Prior to 2010 they had choice and many choose the University PGCE route. The BEd route is often the preferred route to primary. Post 2010 their choices have actually been reduced. The massive switch of provision to school direct only, the capping of places for ITT in university in favour of school direct for popular routes e.g. English, History, PE, primary forces candidates to choose school direct even if it is their wish to train in a university. They often do this, seeing the benefits of M level study and not just (in some cases) QTS. Heads must also ‘choose’ school direct and bid for places in the hope that a university partner will support and deliver what they want – even if they do not really wish to take on the extra burden of administration etc. involved in school direct. It’s either that or hope that enough trained teachers come out of the system that they can employ.

The ‘free choice’ market, beloved by Mr Martin is also not really a free choice. There is evidence that a number of school direct teaching schools are pre-selecting those who they perceive to be the best trainees and signing them up to jobs while other schools, who may be in partnership, but who are not leading or teaching schools, lose out.

At present there is a teacher recruitment crisis and it was amply predicted by all sectors well in advance. The DfE even to this day ignores the evidence from all the teaching unions and Heads leaders – their response to the ‘crisis’ is, in the words of one twitter user (not a teacher I may add, but a school governor) ‘delusional’. In a BBC report on 11th January 2016 the DfE response to the teacher recruitment crisis is as follows:

A Department for Education spokeswoman said it had worked with the profession to “raise the status of teaching”, adding that that a record number of highly-qualified graduates and “experienced career changers” were now teaching.

She added: “But we are determined to go further, and recognise that some schools find it harder to recruit the teachers they need, which is why we are expanding the great Teach First and Schools Direct programmes and we are launching the National Teaching Service, which will mean more great teachers in schools in every corner of the country.”

I’m sorry, but this is a pitiful response to a national teaching recruitment crisis.

How does abolishing the need for any formal qualifications in teaching ‘raise the status’ of teachers? It does just the opposite.

Pay has been massively eroded with a further 4 years of a maximum 1% rise – a rise which some schools are withholding due to budget cuts.  This does nothing to ‘raise the status’ of teachers – again, quite the opposite.

The National Teaching Service – as far as I can see – is not about training more teachers, but taking good or excellent teachers from one school to place them in another.

Notice also, in the DfE comment, how university training routes does not even warrant a mention.

Teach First is still a very minor route into teaching and I doubt has the capacity to expand to adequately meet the crisis. And in all this chaos, the best recruiters, the majority recruiter with nearly 50% ‘outstanding’ provision, is being stopped from expanding and is being cut back, all so that Gove’s (now Morgan’s) reform can provide ‘choice’ to Heads – choice that they had before, but which now is no choice, but a forced position to bolster a flagging and failing route that was rushed and badly implemented. As I stated in Part 2, it’s no choice!