Who's in charge of education? Who should be in charge? I was on a panel last night hosted by the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education that posed those questions. My answer to the first echoes the response given by an Afghan warlord when asked by a BBC correspondent how they felt about the occupying British forces. 'Just another tribe,' he said. Education is like that; lots of tribes, competing for notional dominance. In this model, General Gove and the DfE troops have the loudest ordnance, but Apache helicopters and Stinger missiles are only so effective against chameleon armies of men buried in caves and villages. Or universities and staff rooms.
Because education isn't a single beast that one can collar and control. It's a herd of cats, made of bees. The levers that the Mighty Oz of Sanctuary House can pull are far more limited than many suspect. Oh he can certainly carpet bomb the landscape of education with Daisy Cutters and white napalm, he can pass laws and declare a Golden Dawn, but shock and awe isn't the same as winning the hearts and minds, and we know how successful that policy was in Afghanistan. I'll pause for a moment and allow you to savour this moment of feeling sorry for the Secretary of State. If teachers aren't willing to implement, if Ofsted inspectors stubbornly pursue their own agendas, if teacher training institutions continue to promote their research as dogma, then change on the ground is hard to achieve. The politician is often as impotent as the classroom teacher, or the British of Gandhi's India; if the subjects won't be subject, then workers of the world suddenly find they have nothing to lose.
This is an exaggeration; the DfE has enormous effect, mostly through its subsidiary, Ofsted. But even the Nietzschean piledriver of Wilshaw's will has found it difficult to ensure his maxims are followed. At times it looks as easy as potting a snooker ball with a cue made of liquorice. So who else holds a hand in this game?
The Universities are more powerful than many suspect, even themselves. Their dominance over the certification process of QTS has given them, in near-history, a controlling share in the teacher factory, a fact that surely explains the vigour with which our incumbent Sultan of Pedagogy has pursued portfolio and in-school provision, creating, like 3-D printers, the abilities for schools to forge their own staff.
Which leads us to the debate this week surrounding the need- or otherwise- of teachers to hold QTS status. That requirement was removed, on the grounds that private schools had the freedom to recruit non-teacher-trained, but still-expert practitioners, and they seemed to be doing just fine. It's been part of a raft of freedoms granted to the new waves of academies and free schools, and now all schools. My own view is that this has merit, and is surely meant to be a method of accelerating the introduction of talented specialists into schools., But that it's still a misfire. It has merit, it really does, although many are painting this argument as being entirely polar, but it just isn't.
Because there's another reason why removing the QTS requirement might seem attractive: the QTS bar is, frankly, pretty low. It doesn't guarantee a great education, nor does it guarantee that a graduate possessor will be a particularly competent teacher. All it means is that its possession indicates you survived the process. A bit of luck with your placement schools, the leniency of your mentors and examiners, the civility of your classes, all conspire to create a pass/ fail system heavily geared to the former. I learned nothing about controlling difficult classes, and I assure you what I learned about Vygotsky and Dewey only impeded my ability to lead and teach a class for many years.
But as Laura McInerney and others have pointed out, this points to reform, not euthanasia. The merits of a regenerated qualification outweighs its abolition: the professional status of the teacher, an opportunity to transmit core skills and knowledge, and a guarantee of a certain level of competency. The first has been categorically dismantled, not by imaginary attacks on the profession in the press, but by the Ofsted straitjacket and prescribed, preferred methods of the last twenty years. The second is an opportunity so far wasted, as teachers often learn little they remember or retain of any use past the first month in the classroom. The third is a bar set very, very low indeed. But what can we expect of a system that until recently was based on quotas and projected need? If the forecast suggests we must have 10,000 more Physics teachers, then that is what we seek, and quality suffers in the absence of abundance. The QTS, as it stands, stands for very little. No wonder Gove saw it as more of a nuisance than a Gold Standard.
But it's all that's left of our professional symbolism. Remove it, and like Steve Martin in The Jerk, we're shuffling around in Supermarkets in our dressing gowns, clutching onto our thermos flasks. What we need is a new College of Teachers, Royal or otherwise, with the power to certify using a national examination process alongside an evaluation of craft. That, at least, would be a start.
One of the most frustrating ideas that still staggers on in education is that, as one of the grandees on my panel said yesterday, it should be the children in charge of education. As a sentiment, it's admirable, but it's as coherent as Russell Brand's views on...well, anything else apart from his own reflection. It's defended as a child-centred approach, but isn't all education, in some way, to this end? And it invariably leads to the sort of Apocalyptic inversion of adult authority that destroys the ability- and right- of teachers to direct children for their own good because, after all, they're children and we are adults, and anyone who forgets that paradigm because of some sloppy belief that children are the best guides of their own well being, clearly hasn't been near any children lately.
It leads to student interview panels, or worse, students evaluating teachers, as advocated by the no-doubt normally sober and wise Head Teacher Richard Cairns of Brighton College, who called on the government to make it compulsory for students to rate their teachers. I have a fabulous idea for you, Mr Cairns. Why don't we get all of the staff to rate Head Teachers-anonymously- and base your bonus on that? What? No takers? -*sad face* It also leads to the banal advert by the normally sensible Teach First trailed this week in anticipation of their forthcoming report into student opinions: 'Young people deserve a greater say in their education!' it gushes. It's rare for Teach First to make this kind of sub-Ken Robinson blunder, and I can only imagine there's someone in their comms team that needs to be doing a different job, forever. Young people are brilliant. I could teach them all day. Their well being is my highest priority. But that isn't the same as being in charge.
Because the most powerless group in all of this debate, is the teachers. We have student voice, and parent power, leadership teams, University battery farms and Warlords of goddamn Atlantis. What we don't have, is an effective mechanism to build the teacher into the new Jerusalem. The only place we have any chips to play, are on social network platforms where, like Tron or Second life, we can megaphone and posture and wrestle in a glorious digital fleshpit.
What an odd demographic to allow itself to be ignored so easily. Maybe we should do something about it.