James Williams, a lecturer in education at the University of Sussex School of Education and Social Work, writes:
"Many pupils will succeed in spite of their teachers rather than because of them – that will be true in both the state and private sector.
But the truth of this situation is that it’s not about whether the Oxbridge graduate can be a great teacher, or if the graduate with a third from a low ranking university will automatically be a bad teacher. There is no large body of robust research that shows a positive correlation between degree class and teaching ability, or a negative one come to that.
The missing element is why the private schools hire Oxbridge and Russell Group graduates. It’s not for their teaching prowess, after all with no training how can they be ‘great teachers’ from day one? They will require training whatever class of degree they have, whatever university they come from. Many will, no doubt, become competent teachers, some will become great and outstanding teachers. But that is not the reason why so many top private schools will hire them.
The main reason, I suspect, is more for their ability to teach the pupils how to get into Oxbridge. Of course having great subject knowledge will also help, but it’s knowledge of the system, the traditions and the quirks of the interview system that’s important. They know how to phrase answers and supporting statements, speak and act in a way which predisposes the interviewer to think of you as a suitable candidate for a place. This is a key factor perhaps in their success in getting that job with no teaching qualification. This is what teacher training cannot do; It cannot teach the ordinary graduate to be an Oxbridge graduate with all that this entails.
The main reason state schools have such a difficult time getting their high-flying pupils into Oxbridge is not because state pupils have a lower academic achievement. It’s much more to do with mindset. Year after year we read of highly qualified young people with a fistful of A* grades failing to get a prized place at Oxford or Cambridge. So we know it’s not their intellectual ability that is in question.
If we were to carry out a census of unqualified private school teachers what would we find? How many would have studied in an inner-city comprehensive? What would we find out about their family background? Which universities would they have studied at? I suspect few will come from a working class background, attended a comprehensive and gained a third class honours degree from a low ranking university.
In short, who better to help the private school pupil gain entry to the elite university than a product of that same system? Teachers can be influential in encouraging the aspirations of the children they teach. We all have a little place in our hearts for our Alma Mater.
My own path to university was not straight forward. I come from a working class background, the family trade back to my great grandfather, was selling fish. Neither my parents nor my sister attended university. My father was a hardworking, intelligent man who simply followed the family tradition and entered the trade. He knew that the business in the late 1970s was under threat from supermarkets who could undercut his prices. He was keen that his children did not take on a hard, harsh, wet, cold job where earning an honest living meant a six day week working up to 12 hours a day.
I attended the local comprehensive school. I was never in the ‘top set’ in any subject. My friends at school had similar backgrounds and upbringing. We were fed a standard educational diet, but I cannot recall much talk of university. A number of my teachers were unqualified – this was a time when possessing a degree gained prior to the 1970s meant automatic qualified teacher status. Some I recall had no degree, but had a certificate in education and, reflecting back on their lessons they were indeed better teachers.
My sister entered banking at 16 and remained with the bank her whole career. As for me? I was encouraged to do as well as I could in school and I had ideas of a career in acting. I left my comprehensive to go to sixth form with a modest clutch of O levels (no A grades for me).Then I discovered geology. I loved the subject and wanted to study it further. When I first mooted the idea of University I recall my parent’s words. ‘That’s great James, give it a go see what happens, but remember University’s not for the likes of us.’
What of my teachers? Well they were supportive, but the talk was not of aiming high it was more a case of ‘humour the poor lad’. My A levels were not outstanding, but I gained a place at Goldsmiths’ College to study geology.
I cannot remember any teachers who were Oxbridge. I recall the head of my sixth form, Dr Graham, and wondering why someone with the title doctor was just a headmaster.
All in all, not a remarkable education. The careers advice I had was to think about joining my father’s business or perhaps ‘a nice little office job if you can’t cope with hard work.’ I was lucky, I did get to university to study something I loved and still love to this day. I trained to be a teacher, worked for many years in a state comprehensive encouraging as many pupils as possible to work hard and go to university. Some of the pupils I taught were Oxbridge material and did achieve that dream, though not without coaching from an Oxford graduate.
I now work at a university training teachers, something I see as a privilege. Hearing the current Secretary of State, Michael Gove, say that what I do is unnecessary – that good teachers are those with the best qualifications and that the academic and practical training we give good graduates can all be picked up on the job saddens me.
It seems that he bases this idea on the fact that private schools seem to do well with unqualified staff picking things up. Yet he ignores completely the backgrounds of these teachers. Vitally he ignores the make-up of the pupils in these schools. The unqualified Oxbridge graduate is coaching pupils who have, from a young age, an assumption that university is not just ‘for them’, but a natural stepping stone in life’s journey. This is very different from teaching the pupil who sees the harsh reality of unemployment, benefits, the stigma that is often associated with that and who simply wants to survive education, perhaps to work, perhaps not."