Dragging me down to their level 4

18th April 2008 at 01:00
The drive for higher standards in colleges has not pleased everyone. Here, one lecturer tells of his disquiet

Having resisted the pressure for as long as possible, I finally agreed last year to attend a level 4 (degree level) teaching qualification course at my college. Many of those present had degrees in English, along with teaching qualifications and years of experience.

By the end of the first session, I had already decided that I wouldn't be going to any more of them, even if it meant, as seems to be the case, that I wouldn't be able to carry on teaching after 2010.

A good deal of the content of the session was at pretty much the same level as the media study work I've been doing with GCSE English students for years - fairly basic textual analysis.

It struck me that if you didn't already know this stuff, you shouldn't really be teaching anyway. At the end of the session I spoke to the tutor to see if I could be exempted from those units, stretching seemingly into infinity, that I had already covered elsewhere.

She said she would need to check with her supervisor. Several weeks later I did eventually get a reply, by email, from the supervisor. I've carried it with me ever since, because I still can't quite believe it.

Essentially, my BA and MA in English "are OK for the reading and writing units". In other words they show that I can read and write, and possibly also speak and listen, although there seemed to be some doubt.

My PGCE just has the word "no" written next to it - apparently it contained nothing that would allow me to be exempted from any Level 4 unit. Likewise the certificates that I have in applied linguistics, supporting dyslexic adults and in teaching basic skills to adults ("definitely not" it says next to this one). The email concludes, with no hint of irony, "hope this is helpful?"

So, these qualifications that I worked so hard to get - because I was interested, not because anyone made me - are now disparagingly referred to as "heritage qualifications".

This is how they are listed, for example, in a recent skills audit that was carried out in my faculty. I might add that it is no longer the "faculty of languages and humanities", having become "the faculty of skills for life".

I prefer to think of "heritage qualifications" as proper qualifications.

There are a number of very serious problems arising from this. One is that the whole process in effect de-skills people, like myself, who have good, relevant and rigorously assessed qualifications, not to mention years of experience.

And what about experience? In any other job or profession, it would surely be acknowledged as bringing with it a wealth of knowledge and expertise.

Any teacher knows that, with experience, you find new and more effective ways of explaining and presenting the subject, along with a deeper understanding of it.

That is to be expected. The level 4 model seems to imply the exact opposite however - a steady decline into "heritage" country; that a person gets worse at a job the longer they do it. One fortuitous side-effect of the target culture we labour under is that I can produce evidence that I haven't got worse at my job - achievement and retention figures consistently well above national benchmarks; a grade one in my recent teaching observation.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the requirement to complete the level 4 qualifications is another burden on an already overstretched, over-scrutinised and underpaid workforce.

Where I work, there has generally been a reluctant compliance with it, especially among younger staff who don't want to find themselves "disqualified" from teaching, coupled with a noticeable increase in absence due to sickness.

However, it seems clear that a lot of the best qualified and most experienced staff will decide that they have had enough - ironically, given the scheme's avowed aim of driving up teaching standards.

It surprises and saddens me that there hasn't been more in the way of organised opposition to, and sustained criticism of, this initiative, given that it represents such an undermining of professionalism and (again, ironically) such blatant de-skilling of lecturers.

Perhaps this in itself indicates just how low morale is.

Would it not have been possible to use some discretion - to have a scheme that acknowledged and valued experience and hard-won qualifications - rather than a heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all approach that only served to alienate so many?

I enjoy my job and I'd like to carry on doing it, but not at any price.

John Arnett is a lecturer at a college in London

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