Editorial - Academic flops may turn into teaching stars

22nd January 2010 at 00:00
Cameron's drive to make teaching an elite profession is to be applauded - but not his method

David Cameron has been widely mocked by many in the profession over his proposals to improve the quality of teachers. It would be gratuitously courageous not to join in the stone throwing.

The Conservative leader's suggestion that those who fail to gain at least a B in English and maths at GCSE should not be allowed to become primary school teachers attracted a few sizeable pebbles. But it was his proposal to deter graduates who achieved a third-class degree from teaching that triggered more vigorous rock-throwing. Carol Vorderman and Michael Morpurgo could be forgiven for assuming that they were pretty good at inspiring kids. How dispiriting it must be to realise that because both only managed to scrape a third they can't be considered good at all.

Stoning tailed off at the news that the Conservatives would replace the Graduate Teaching Programme with Teach Now - not because it met with general approval but because no one was quite sure how it would pan out. The projectiles resumed at every mention of Finland, South Korea and Singapore - it's terribly unsporting to draw comparisons with countries that have no Kylies, Tylers or Chantelles in the general population. Why should we celebrate their educational success when they clearly don't know what a challenge is?

But the serious boulders were reserved for the general assumption that seemed to underpin Mr Cameron's raft of reforms: that teaching should be reserved for the brightest graduates regardless of their ability to relate to other human beings. What was the point of recruiting academic superstars, critics shrieked, if they couldn't explain, couldn't empathise and had a distinct aversion to children? Indeed, generations of pupils can attest that the best teachers are often those who had difficulty learning, because they can see obstacles invisible to the effortlessly bright.

Before Mr Cameron's proposals disappear under a mountain of outrage, however, perhaps his critics should pause for breath. Whatever the limitations of his desire to brand teaching as "brazenly elitist", it is certainly better than "cheerfully mediocre" or "intermittently interested". If his tag helps kill the perception that teaching is the destination for those who can't do anything else, he should be thanked. Equally welcome is his suggestion that heads should have more power to reward good staff and weed out poorly performing ones.

The main problem with Mr Cameron's plans isn't that they are outrageously radical but disappointingly meek. Fiddling around with GCSE grades and the now near-extinct third-class degree isn't going to improve the status of teaching. What would is trust. Schools should be expected to educate pupils to a certain standard. Teachers should be trusted, as professionals, to educate them.

"We've made our teachers' lives more difficult, undermining their judgment, curbing their freedom, telling them what to do and how to do it," Mr Cameron said. Well, quite. Unfortunately, some of the noise coming from the Conservative camp suggests that they still think that government, not teacher, knows best.

Gerard Kelly, Editor E gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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