False light given out by the `Beacon' teachers

9th October 1998 at 01:00
There is a piece of physics known as the Raleigh-Jeans catastrophe. It involves a formula, which predicts the amount of energy emitted from the human body at a given temperature. The final equation, derived by two eminent physicists of the day, had only one drawback - it was completely wrong.

I am currently wondering whether the Department for Education and Employment theory about the recruitment and retention of teachers contains an analogous flaw like this piece of physics.

I do not doubt that the present Government is clearly committed to raising educational standards. How can it be then, that with such good intentions allied to additional resources, so many of the outcomes could well belie the ambition? It is because the theory of teacher recruitment and motivation is so adrift.

The DFEE theory is that the outstanding and well-paid few will inspire the many. Beacon teachers, formally known as advanced skills teachers, will shine from afar. Positioned strategically across the country, at a density of a handful per local authority, they will shine forth like a good deed in a naughty world, offering inspiration and encouragement to those toiling on the lower slopes.

This takes me back to the Raleigh-Jeans catastrophe. The explanation for that lay in the fact that the underlying 19th-century classical physics provided a false set of premises on which to construct the theory. And because the underlying premises were wrong, the answer was wrong - spectacularly so!

I believe that, day-by-day, the evidence will accumulate to belie the Beacon Teacher premise for an overall better profession. The theory will be confounded by the reality. To solve the Raleigh-Jeans, scientists had to switch theories entirely, from the classical to the quantum.

I hope that sooner, rather than later, the DFEE will abandon its present set of premises and make a quantum leap in understanding - a realisation that if all children in all schools are to succeed, then all teachers must be properly paid to undertake effectively the challenging tasks with which they are charged.

No matter how excellent those literacy and numeracy schemes, unless there are good-quality teachers then you might as well pile them up on Salisbury Plain -the schemes that is - and set fire to them, creating a different kind of beacon.

Gordon Mott. Director of education and leisure. London Borough of Southwark

* Research Focus, page 27

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