Editorial - Two bonkers events, but one was not so brilliant

3rd August 2012 at 01:00

Jaw-dropping, bonkers and peculiarly British. Those were some of the words used to praise the opening to the 2012 Olympics last Friday, with its dancing NHS nurses and sky-diving Queen. However, those adjectives could have also been used to criticise another event that took place in London that day, a suspiciously short time before the ceremony.

The Department for Education's announcement that it would no longer require academies to employ qualified teachers was certainly jaw-dropping (see pages 16-17). School staff in England reacted with outrage to the news that their training and expertise was being publicly branded as worthless by the government, and that anyone could walk off the street into a classroom job.

Was it bonkers? Yes, especially when looked at from the perspective of global education research. After years of claims from the education secretary that he wanted England to raise the status and professionalism of teachers, and emulate the high bar for recruits set by Finland, here was a move in the opposite direction.

The Finnish government has been clear that one key to its schools' success is the high level of training required of all its teachers. To become a primary teacher, for instance, requires five years of university study, including a master's degree majoring in education sciences.

Only three years ago, England was planning to follow suit and introduce a compulsory master's for teaching and learning. But our current education ministers have decided that the world's most successful school system must not know what it is doing after all.

Instead, the DfE wheeled out a handful of independent and free schools to act as cheerleaders for recruiting unqualified staff. Their headteachers boasted that the freedom has allowed them to snap up fresh Oxbridge graduates, actors, nuclear physicists and "someone from the BBC". Those luminaries could go straight to work in the classroom and begin being paid at once.

Now, there is actually something to be said for that recruitment strategy. But that is precisely why we already have a graduate teaching programme, and why it is being replaced with the supposedly more elite School Direct scheme. If the new version is not going to be fast-track and light-touch enough to attract high-quality career-switchers, then fix it.

The peculiarly British aspect of the policy is that is based on the classic assumption that "if private schools do it, it must be good". Over the decades this assumption has been used to defend a range of dubious practices, including corporal punishment. More pertinently, anyone who thinks independent schools are models of rigorous teacher recruitment has not met the duff staff some hire, who can still get reasonable results because of the advantages their pupils gain elsewhere.

The government's announcement also opens the gates for academies to hire unqualified staff purely as a cheaper alternative to trained teachers. We know that threat is genuine because certain state schools are stretching the rules over teaching assistants to do exactly that already. A quality check of some kind must be required.

The opening to our Olympics may have been eccentric, but it was greeted with global applause instead of ridicule. We cannot allow it to be the quality and status of our teachers that turns us into an international laughing stock.


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