‘Labour’s policies should be taken seriously, but only if they focus on improving what happens in the classroom’

16th January 2014 at 17:35

Robert Coe, professor in the school of education and director of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM), Durham University, writes:

"Finally, Labour has the beginnings of some education policies that can be taken really seriously. Finally, some ideas that should give Michael Gove something that might be called real opposition.

Quoting educational thinkers as diverse as John Dewey, Andreas Schleicher and Dan Willingham, Labour’s shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt seemed confident and well-informed in his speech to the North of England Education Conference on Wednesday.

‘Quality, not structures’ was the key message and on this, Hunt is absolutely right. In terms of educational outcomes, the best research is pretty clear: what type of school, how it is governed, funded and managed makes very little difference. What really matters is what happens in classrooms, and the quality of teaching is crucial.

The difference between the best and worst here is big, so it should be a rich area for educational policy to address. Supporting all teachers to improve is an approach supported by a range of evidence.

A focus on professional development for teachers at all stages of their careers is rightly a key area of this agenda, and again is one where current practice and policy is out of line with what the evidence tells us we should be doing.

If Hunt can find a way to increase the status and quality of CPD for teachers, and increase its impact on their practice, he will have achieved something very significant. However, this is one area of his proposals where the details will really matter.

At the moment, the professional training undertaken by teachers is of variable quality and often ineffective. What matters is what happens in classrooms, so unless CPD changes that it isn’t worth doing.

There is such a huge distance between what we currently do and a world in which choices about what CPD to undertake could be informed by robust evidence of its impact on learners. This challenge should not be underestimated.

Also back on Labour’s agenda is the need for all teachers to be qualified. If teaching is to be a profession, it must have professional standards, and the idea that it should be open to anyone to practice feels demeaning and dangerous.

No-one would consider such a situation for doctors, solicitors, engineers, or any other profession where important outcomes depend on the knowledge and competence of someone who is required to be an expert.

On the other hand, we know that independent schools, among which are some of the most prestigious institutions in the land, have never formally required any teaching qualification. If they can maintain high standards without insisting on QTS, can it really be necessary?

Many head teachers will tell of a situation where an individual teacher had all the skills, experience and qualities required to make them an excellent appointment, but not formal QTS. Should we constrain the ability to appoint excellent teachers just because they lack a piece of paper?

And that is the heart of the matter. If QTS is just a piece of paper, just evidence of time-serving on a programme that gives no guarantee – or even indication – of quality, then we would be right to discard it.

On the other hand, if we can find a way to define and implement a standard for teaching quality that makes it meaningful as a qualification; if this is worth striving for as a genuine path to improvement, then Hunt’s clear statement that all teachers must be qualified begins to seem like a much needed boost to teachers’ professionalism and status, and a genuine strategy for improvement.

Successfully filling in the details to make that possible could be his hardest challenge yet."



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