Oh Teacher! (Source: Flickr Creative Commons)
In the Daily Telegraph recently, we had yet another ‘debate’ about whether or not teachers need to be ‘qualified’. There is a simple answer. Yes, yes and yes. Why three times a yes? well, it depends on which qualification you are specifying. The problem with these debates is the smoke and mirrors that many who oppose teacher qualifications use to confuse the matter. We have yet another example in this Telegraph debate, with Richard Cairns, the Headmaster of Brighton College arguing against a requirement for qualified teachers. Previously Toby Young, who set up the West London Free School, has scorned the idea of teacher qualifications, He talks about ‘union approved’ qualifications making teaching, in effect, a closed shop unless you gain this union ticket. He is wrong on so many counts. Firstly, neither a PGCE nor a BEd degree qualifies anyone to teach (they are both academic qualifications) and they are not ‘union approved’ in the sense that academic qualification approvals come via the host institution and no university would defer to a union on its academic qualifications and standards. If he means that the unions approve of teachers being trained to do the job, well, yes, naturally, why would they not approve? It is Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) which makes a teacher qualified and these professional standards are set up and controlled by the DfE through the National College of Teaching and Leadership (NCTL). A BEd/BA/BSc or PGCE needs to be supported with QTS for that person to rightly be called a ‘qualified teacher’.
The ‘holy trinity’ for teachers
Excellent teachers are, in my opinion, possessed of a ‘holy trinity’: excellent subject knowledge; knowledge of how children grow, develop and learn alongside theories of teaching and learning, psychology etc; and the skills to plan, teach and impart knowledge and understanding, in conjunction with a set of professional attributes. This ‘holy trinity’ is summed up by the qualifications they achieve. A good subject degree, a postgraduate academic qualification related to teaching and learning and a professional qualification that recognises their skills on the job. In other words a first degree (or higher degree); a Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE), preferably at Masters level, if the first degree is only subject based and Qualified Teacher Status (QTS). All three are necessary to ensure the highest quality of teachers in our profession. My frustration is that all too often people confuse the BEd/PGCE and QTS and they believe that a subject qualification somehow automatically means a person can effectively impart their knowledge and understanding to others (in this case children in school).
The better the qualification, the better the teacher?
First, let’s briefly consider the possession of a degree as being ‘sufficient’ to become a teacher. Ask the question in the staffroom: “does a PhD in physics make you a better physics teacher than someone with a third class honours degree?” then stand back and watch the fights ensue. Yes! No! Maybe! As far as I am aware there is no empirical evidence that fully supports the contention that the best physics teachers have the best physics degrees. If someone is aware of any meta-research which does support such a contention, please let me know. Yes, people can point me towards research which supports either a YES or a NO stance, but nothing which bears scrutiny in such a way that it empirically shows such a link. Although a report appeared in the Times Educational Supplement (TES) recently stating the views of Pasi Sahlberg, that ‘those who underperform at school can make better teachers’ as they can better explain to children knowledge and ideas, I do not take this as ‘definitive’ proof.
Knowing how to teach what you know
In 1986 Lee Shulman coined the term Pedagogic Content Knowledge or PCK. Put very simply, this is ‘knowing how to teach what you know’ It’s not a tautology and it has its complexity. Shulman ends his paper by refuting the old adage ‘those who can, do; those who cannot, teach’ with a revised (and I think very true) version: Those who can, do; those who understand, teach.
If knowing your ‘subject’ is important, why isn’t knowing about education also important?
This leads us nicely to the second of my ‘trinity’, the BEd/BA (education) or Post Graduate Certificate in Education. The academic study of education is often derided by teachers and academics. If you are a through and through academic you ‘may’ have come to study education having first become a teacher. Though many academics who write and research in the discipline of education are academics who have never set foot in a classroom of children and taught over a sustained period. Such academics are (being kind here) viewed suspiciously by teachers who feel they cannot possibly ‘know’ about teaching if they have never done the job, paid their dues and have the scars to show for it. Others, like me, come to work in a university having ‘served’ my time in schools. People like me can also be eyed with suspicion by the academics who regard me as not being a fully paid up academic researcher. Likewise those who are still teaching in schools look at me and say that as soon as I leave the classroom my credibility is irrevocably damaged as clearly, if I was any good, I would still be teaching children. The academic study of education is also eyed suspiciously by teachers who see the ‘theory’ as a necessary evil, often not helpful and in some instances more akin to snake-oil rather than a robust, ‘evidenced’, acceptable and accepted body of knowledge and understanding.
Myths and Mythology
I have a degree of sympathy for this view, after all there are many myths, mythologies and intellectually bankrupt ideas that have infected our schools – from Brain Gym to Learning Styles and back via Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP). None of these aforementioned ‘approaches’ (I will not grace them with the title ‘theory’ as I see this as an affront to science – my first degree discipline) can be sustained by anything like credible, empirical evidence. Yet they still persist. Only last week I was confronted by a school lesson plan pro forma (see extracts below) that suggested its teachers list the ‘learning styles’ and ‘brain gym’ activities they utilise. This school was part of a SCITT, there was no ‘progressive university input’. Often teachers, and politicians, including Nick Gibb in April 2015, lay the blame for such mythology entering the culture of teaching squarely at the foot of teacher training in universities. Gibb was unequivocal about the ‘fact’ that it is university education departments who promote ‘progressive’ teaching and says, who is to blame for our education system slipping down the international rankings? The answer is the academics in the education faculties of universities. I will not absolve all ITT in all universities from this charge but in nearly 20 years in teacher education and having seen numerous courses in science education across many universities I have never seen such things promoted as having any merit. I have, however, encountered many schools who pass it on to trainees under their care, just like the school last week who hosted a school-based SCITT trainee.
Surely gaining a skillset before you are let loose on children is common sense?
Finally, we come to QTS. These are the professional attributes and skills that EVERY teacher should achieve and continue to meet during their career, no matter how long or short that career is. I say ‘should’, not because I think it is optional, but because Michael Gove made these professional skills and attributes optional in one of the most audacious and arrogant attacks on the profession during his reign as Education Secretary. He changed the law so that Free schools and Academies (Free schools are of course academies and that’s another ‘moaning’ another post I may write someday) do not have to employ teachers with QTS. Gove made it acceptable to hire teachers on just their academic subject alone. They need not know anything about education, how children grow, develop, learn, how teachers teach, what teaching approaches have been shown to be effective etc. They simply need to know their own subject. As Janet Downs, reports on the Local Schools Network blog, UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, as far back as 1966 “was quite clear: governments should require entrants to the teaching profession to have the ‘required professional knowledge and skills’. It is the responsibility of governments, UNESCO says, to ensure there are ‘sufficient places in appropriate institutions’ so trainee teachers can complete ‘an approved course in an appropriate teacher-preparation institution’.” So, there you have it. Teachers as professionals have various skillsets, knowledge and understanding. It’s time that the media and those who should know better, who lead schools and actually employ teachers, stopped trying to claim that ‘knowledge is king’ and the rest is simply either ‘natural talent’ or something that is easily picked up on the job watching others. We need to restore professionalism and high professional standards for teachers despite the best efforts of this government and the last coalition government to undermine teachers and teaching.