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An open letter to Tristram Hunt: 'Give teachers time to be the best they can be'

James Williams, lecturer in education and chartered science teacher in the School of Education and Social Work, University of Sussex, writes:

Dear Dr Hunt

Teacher education is in the spotlight; I’m sure you agree that a well-educated and trained teaching profession is what will deliver the greatest transformation in our schools and colleges.

Concentrating on reform of the way the teachers are trained is something that those of us who work in teacher education welcome, provided it is done with genuine consultation and a commitment to implement it over a realistic timescale with realistic funding models.

In some high-performing countries, eg, Finland, teacher education takes much longer than it does here and results in more highly qualified professionals. They all qualify at master's level. Potential teachers are targeted during their undergraduate years and work towards gaining excellent subject knowledge as well as excellent knowledge and understanding of educational theory and practice.

If you really want to create a training route into a profession that is highly valued, where graduates see it as the first choice rather than the backup or starter career, you must create a pathway for education and training that is second to none.

1. Encourage schools and universities to identify the best students and refer them to education departments when they arrive at university to begin elective studies in education that includes experience in local schools.

2. For the best students, offer an additional fourth year master's route that combines curriculum-focussed subject knowledge with more intense school experience, leading to an initial licence to teach (similar to the current QTS). In return for their commitment to teaching, think about reduced or subsidised fees or contributions to their student loan repayments.

3. Guarantee an initial two-year teaching post where, on licence, teachers will continue to develop their subject expertise, tailored to the current curriculum. During this time, their knowledge and understanding of teaching, learning and child development should also be improved with further CPD and/or university study. Make their teaching load no more than 50 per cent.

4. In year 3, they will be ready for an unconditional licence with a 75-80 per cent teaching load and guaranteed continuing professional development – which may also include mentoring and training up-and-coming teachers.

5. If you really wish to have a system for relicencing teachers, make sure that this process is conducted in a fair manner with responsibility for relicencing devolved to a fully independent body such as a College of Teachers. Many professions have a similar scheme for "Chartered Status" – indeed, this already exists in teaching, eg, the Chartered Science Teacher scheme.

When I talk to teachers, what they would like – more than money – is time. Time to plan, to mark, to reflect, to continue training. If the school year changes and the day is lengthened, don’t make the mistake of increasing the workload of teachers in the belief that the children will perform better, they won’t. Exhausted teachers (and children) will not magically become better just because they work longer hours.

Effective reform takes time and this is something Michael Gove has failed time and again to understand. What results from fast reform is a leisurely repentance – that said, in the case of politics rarely is the reformer in the same office long enough for repentance to be meaningful.

Don’t, like Gove, have a quick-fix 5-year plan designed to raise your profile as a politician and leave a "legacy". I can assure you that Gove’s legacy will not be as the saviour and hero of educational standards, but more akin to Blackadder’s General Melchett lumbering from one bad plan to another, sacrificing teachers and children by ordering them to go "over the top" in the hope that a few will make it to the end of the reform. We do not need any more sacrifices on the altar of his, or any other politician’s, ideological policies.

What I outline above is just one brief model for initial teacher education. The reaction from many, perhaps your initial reaction even, will be one of cost: “It’s far too expensive to implement”. But this is where long-term reform helps. Rather than throwing large sums of money after widespread short-term change, which will lead to few effective outcomes, be bold and think of a twenty-year plan which can deliver a better educated and trained profession capable of delivering the highest educational standards for our young people. Start with the one thing that will have the biggest effect – giving time to teachers to be the best that they can be.

Yours sincerely

James D Williams

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