Editorial - Nuances lacking in ill-judged bout of teacher-bashing

31st July 2009 at 01:00
Politeia report's pertinent points marred by misleading use of comparisons

"Can teachers be too clever?" mused the headline. The article was sceptical about the classroom abilities of academic teachers and went on: "It is often said ... that the man with a second-class degree is a better teacher than his brother with a first-class degree, because he has had to fight his way to it and overcome difficulties on the way, while the brilliant scholar, having no difficulties himself, cannot understand them in others." It appeared in The TES in 1938.

How times change. "Qualifications for teachers in England are lowest in developed world," the tabloids complained last week. A report from the slightly dog-eared think tank Politeia (pages 14-15) on teacher training gave the impression that teachers were being let loose on the nation's youth equipped with little more than a couple of GCSEs and a swimming certificate. The study's accompanying editorial howled about comprehensive education, government interference, school starting ages and the loss of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. Well, not the last, but given the tenor of its rhetoric it wouldn't have looked out of place by the time one made it to page 124.

Politeia's ramshackle report, though, contains a couple of pertinent points. For a start, it cannot be desirable for teachers to have so little knowledge of maths, English or a language beyond the age of 16 - less than 10 per cent of primary teachers have an A-level in one of those subjects. That, however, is a consequence of the UK's needlessly specialised post-16 education system rather than a reflection on the qualities of its teachers. The 70 per cent of French pupils who take the baccalaureate study seven subjects until 18. Forcing would-be teachers to take two A-levels in English and maths in an unreformed system as Politeia recommends is plain silly.

The report is also correct to point out that schools are only as good as the quality of their teachers. Clearly, all is not well when entry grades are so low for many BEd courses and when there are only 1.2 applicants per trainee place compared with more than five in educational super states such as South Korea, Singapore and Finland. Recession be praised, those sickly figures should fatten out, but as The TES has argued before (February 27), the BEd has outlived its usefulness and should be retired.

A more nuanced study than Politeia's would have explored what was obvious in 1938: there really is more to teaching than good grades. As Fenton Whelan points out in his excellent Lessons Learned, the best educational systems select not only by results but also by aptitude. Excellent teachers are certainly bright, but also optimistic, committed, communicative and promote high expectations. They do not subscribe to Politeia's pinched visions. England outperformed France, Germany, Switzerland, New Zealand, the Netherlands and the US - all Politeia's comparator countries - in the latest international tables of pupil mathematical and scientific achievement. Oddly, the think tank didn't mention it. But why let facts get in the way of a good rant ...

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

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