As Gove raises bar on standards, teachers fear punishing regime

18th March 2011 at 00:00
Education secretary vows to bring rigour to existing 'woolly' criteria amid concerns that without improved CPD they may be little more than a stick to beat staff with

Last week, Michael Gove announced yet another review to probe the world of education. In what seems like an almost weekly programme of reform, the education secretary's most recent act is a wholesale rethink of teachers' professional standards.

This is no small undertaking, but in these times of constant flux such extensive, systematic reassessments are now run of the mill. Blink and you could well miss one.

The latest review is the logical next step in Mr Gove's quest to improve the quality of teaching. The education secretary has already made it clear that he intends to raise the bar for entry to PGCE training. Only those with a 2:2 degree or above will secure funding from the Department for Education (DfE) from September 2012.

Now he has shifted his focus to ensure greater rigour once people enter the profession. According to the Department, current teaching standards are merely a "vague list of woolly aspirations".

It cites a survey commissioned by the General Teaching Council for England (GTC), released last year, which revealed that 41 per cent of teachers did not believe the standards made any difference to the way they taught.

Launching the review, Mr Gove said that despite having the best generation of teachers the country has ever seen, more needed to be done to ensure they continuously improve.

"Headteachers and teachers have told me in no uncertain terms that the current teachers' standards are ineffective, meaningless and muddy, fluffy concepts," he said. "There is also no clear evidence that they help to improve standards.

"That's why we need clear standards that teachers can use to guide their development."

Leading the review is Sally Coates, principal at Burlington Danes Academy in west London, who claims that with more than 100 different standards, as well as the GTC's code of conduct, the area has become "bureaucratic and confusing" for heads and teachers alike.

Association of School and College Leaders general secretary Brian Lightman agrees, and adding that current standards are "very difficult to use".

"There are currently too many sets of standards relating to the teaching profession," Mr Lightman said. "The production of one explicit and concise set of professional standards for the whole teaching profession has the potential to greatly assist school leaders."

The DfE states that just two of the 33 standards a trainee must meet to achieve QTS (qualified teacher status) focus on skills and how to teach effectively.

Similarly, across all of the 102 standards, four concentrate on "health and wellbeing" while just two ensure teachers have good "subject and curriculum knowledge".

Mr Gove may call it "guiding development", but many experts believe that bringing in a host of more stringent standards focusing intensely on teaching expertise and subject knowledge is designed to make it easier for heads to weed out and remove incompetent teachers.

The review has been attacked by teaching union the NASUWT, which believes the Coalition has a deep suspicion of the workforce based on evidence from a small sample of headteachers.

Chris Keates, NASUWT general secretary, said: "There is nothing wrong in principle with having a review of professional standards.

"(But) it is wrong to present the review in a context of denigrating teachers and implying that the profession is riddled with incompetence.

"Of deep concern, but by no means surprising, is the exemption of school leaders from the review. The Secretary of State's policies are either driven or (given credibility) by a small coterie of headteachers."

Few teachers would disagree that the standards need rethinking. But there are concerns that merely changing them, without introducing a plausible and coherent system of continuing professional development (CPD), could mean that they are used merely as a means to criticise teachers.

John Bangs, senior research associate at Cambridge University, believes that is exactly what will happen.

"The biggest problem with the current standards - and (the problem) will be with whatever Gove comes up with in the future - is that they will be useless unless you plan what teachers can access in terms of CPD," Mr Bangs said.

"They may well simplify the standards and make them more classroom-based, but unless you link it with training and CPD they will be used in a punitive way.

"There will be unfairness, as teachers won't have access to CPD and headteachers will just use the standards as a stick to beat teachers with."

It is a fear backed by the NUT, which also called for better CPD but is concerned whether this end of the bargain can be upheld in tough economic times.

NUT general secretary Christine Blower said: "If this review is to gain the support of the professionals involved, it will have to ensure high-quality development opportunities. In the present climate of cuts, this will be a challenge for many schools."

But many headteachers believe good schools should already have robust CPD in place, and that a new set of standards could be used to better inform pay decisions, rather than be used as a punitive measure.

Tracy Ruddle, head of Corngreaves Primary School in the West Midlands, said CPD should be tailored to each individual school and warned against over-prescription.

But Ms Ruddle is eager to see changes to the standards. "The trouble with the current standards is they are unspecific and waffly. There needs to be less of them and if you are using them to make improved pay decisions, they don't give any guidance.

"I would like to see a single set of standards that can give better guidance around how a teacher can go up (the pay scale). You may have excellent teachers who might not be on the upper scale but are meeting the core standards with bells on, but at the moment there isn't the guidance to people about their entitlement."

An interim report from the Teachers' Standards Review Group is expected in July, which will provide recommendations on what trainees need to acquire in order to gain QTS and what the new core standards should be.

A final report will then be issued in the autumn, and the Government hopes all new standards will be in place by September 2012.

And when teachers return for the first day of term in 2012 there is one thing they can be certain of - hitting standards will not be any easier.

REFORM - Slim pickings

According to the review brief, the new standards, to be introduced by September 2012, will contain fewer than 10.

Teachers will be expected to:

- provide excellent teaching;

- crack down on bad behaviour;

- improve pupils' skills in the basics of English and maths;

- give better support to those who are falling behind.

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