Can good teaching be measured?;No;Summer debate;Opinion

13th August 1999 at 01:00
CAN we build the identikit ideal teacher? Is there a checklist against which aspiring teachers can be marked, emerging as qualified and competent to teach?

For educationists and the education bureaucracy, there is nothing in teaching that cannot be reduced to a list, a target, an official requirement. The literacy hour, the number of children in a class, even the very method of teaching reading have all been fair game for this alliance. They followed where the most glorified of all checklists - the national curriculum - led.

The list syndrome knows no bounds. So why not apply it to teacher training? One model for every teacher. This is no fanciful Kafkaesque notion. The educationists are already at work on the model and will no doubt have the ready ear of the officials.

But the idea of using lists of criteria to train teachers is flawed. Teaching is a profession. Like medicine or law, the mastery of the subject is the essential prerequisite. The most important thing is that the teacher knows what she or he will teach. Just as the medical student masters academic knowledge first, and then learns to apply that knowledge by means of the ward round and clinics, so too the teacher must first master the subject then apply it.

The how of teaching should be learned in its practical application. Different schools, different ages, different challenges must be met. And where better to learn how to teach than in school, supported by other teachers able to pass on their practical wisdom?

There is no general skills model to fit every circumstance. If there were, then teaching would not be a profession; it would be little more than the activity of a clerk, performing tasks to order.

At the heart of the list system is an attack on teaching as a profession, by those (including some teachers) who see the teacher's job as simply obeying the diktat of education officials.

During the decades after the war this bureaucratic model triumphed as the teacher became the operator of a system devised by those in charge. Subject teaching - the basis for the profession - was driven out. The sociology of education replaced subject teaching as the basis for preparing teachers: and, as this inevitably failed, it was complemented by a new emphasis on methodology, bringing us to these latest proposals.

Far from imposing yet another checklist on an already bureaucratic system, it would be best to set the teaching profession free from the education service. Instead of education departments training teachers, young people should be taught by the best university subject specialists for two or three years - mastering the professional knowledge they need.

After that they will be able to learn on the job, in a school, which as time goes on will become increasingly free of bureaucratic control, both central and local - free to compete, to excel and to teach children in a way in which they judge best. If they are not up to teaching they can leave.

How can I say this will happen, given the history of education authority and government prescription? Well, Britain led the way in the revolution against a state-dominated economy in the 1980s. In education, tentative experiments, such as grant-maintained schools and local management of budgets have given a taste of what can be done by schools and teachers, answerable to parents and governors, not officials.

Schools will increasingly be financed directly, cutting out the enormous diversion of funds to educationists and the officials. Any sensible government will be brought to realise that the key to good schools is good teachers. Direct funding and greater freedom will be a better, more popular course than increased control by a mediocre bureaucracy.

Sheila Lawlor is director of Politeia, a Conservative think-tank

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