Gove says 'raise the bar', but grade 'elitism' could leave profession weakened

17th July 2009 at 01:00
Are you too thick to teach if you got a C for GCSE maths or English or can only muster a third-class degree?

Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove thinks so, but training experts argue that candidates with lacklustre exam results can turn out to be a credit to the classroom

Teachers of the future, prepare to be judged on your misspent youth. Your achievements at A-level and your enthusiasm will count for nothing compared to the mighty judges of character - and of future professional worth - that are GCSE results.

Of course the Conservative Party does not mean to be unfair when proposing to ban anyone with a grade C or below in English and maths from entering the profession - it is simply a case of raising the bar.

And the cull of those who do badly in school when young will extend to those who spend their university years slumped in front of daytime television. If shadow schools secretary Michael Gove has his way, nobody with a third-class degree will set foot in the classroom.

Mr Gove believes that basic knowledge among trainees is simply not good enough and wants to put an end to those with pass grades being admitted to courses.

But if the bar were raised even higher, would some potentially good teachers fall out of the profession's grasp? Education recruitment analysts say that while having a workforce with top qualifications might look good on paper, it could create teacher supply problems - just as recruitment is stabilising for the first time in a decade - and be socially divisive.

Many schools also have examples of teachers who got off to a poor start at school, and can better empathise with pupils who struggle with similar problems than entrants with straight As.

Whether or not trainee teachers should have a GCSE at grade B or above in core subjects has been debated before.

The Williams review into mathematics teaching last year pondered the idea, then rejected it on the grounds that it would be - for now - too potentially damaging to primary recruitment.

The Training and Development Agency for Schools also consulted on whether teachers should be required to have grade B in core subjects three years ago, but universities showed no enthusiasm for the change.

Michael Day, the TDA's executive director for training, said: "You don't want a system that prevents people from having a second chance if they haven't done well in the past.

"The question about grade C at GCSE always bubbles along as an issue and we are at the early stages of thinking about reviewing Qualified Teacher Status. But we don't think low GCSE or degree results are a massive problem."

Information on the proportion of current trainees with a B grade in maths or English at GCSE is not available. But we do know that the vast majority of trainees - around 91 per cent - have a 2:2 class degree or above and increasing numbers get first class degrees or a 2:1. Just 4 per cent have a third.

The TDA said it had no plans to be more prescriptive about A-levels or degrees, leaving it up to universities to decide who they felt were suitable to become teachers.

"It's the responsibility of universities to get people through Qualified Teacher Status and to enable them to get jobs in schools and for that reason they use an intense selection process," Mr Day said.

The trend for trainees joining the profession to have increasingly good degrees is expected to continue.

The TDA's recruitment machine is now targeted at students at the elite Russell Group universities, and the Government has asked it to strengthen its focus on those institutions even more next year.

Course applications are up by about 30 per cent this year, leading to increased selectivity among training organisations. Entry requirements for BEd courses remain comparatively low, but universities insist that students end up getting much better A-levels than they ask for.

And the selection does not stop when students have completed their training. Headteachers say Mr Gove does not take account of the rigorous criteria they apply to those hoping to work in their schools.

Stuart Pywell, head of St Stephen's Junior School in Canterbury, asks for an A in core subjects at GCSE. He argues that it is difficult to improve the quality of teaching with such a centrally controlled curriculum.

"We consider C to be a low level - to be honest we've got some Year 6 children who could get that," said Mr Pywell.

"I agree we need to raise the entry level, but what's more important is that schools manage staff well and encourage them to be creative."

Schools in poorer areas find it harder to attract specialist teachers (see box), and even trainees see how this affects the quality of teaching.

Sam Manley is about to start a secondary science PGCE at Anglia Ruskin University after graduating with a degree in biology and sports science from Essex University.

Mr Manley got five As, three Bs and one C at GCSE and a 2:1 degree. While preparing to do teacher training, he has spent time in two secondary schools, one in a challenging area and the other in a leafier part of town. He says he was shocked by a basic lack of knowledge among some staff in the first school.

"They were making really basic mistakes; their work wasn't (up to) the level I was expecting," he said.

Lawrence Montagu, headteacher at St Peter's RC High School and sixth form centre in Gloucester, wishes Mr Gove had consulted with headteachers before his proposals were announced.

Mr Montagu contributed to the teacher training section of the Dearing report into higher education, published in 1997. Although his school is ranked as outstanding by Ofsted, Mr Montagu finds it hard to recruit English teachers and predicts problems with other subjects if entry levels are raised.

"We have to be careful about being so black and white," Mr Montagu said. "I've seen brilliant teachers with third-class degrees. Encouraging an ultra elitist approach will actually detract from the quality of teachers."

The Conservatives, who realise they might be criticised for demanding secondary teachers have good GCSE results in subjects they do not teach, are still formulating their plans. But with little enthusiasm for change from universities, they will need to go on a charm offensive to convince the sector that reform is needed.

Entry-level findings

For the past 30 years, Finnish teachers have needed pass a five-year masters degree course. In Singapore, teachers come from the top 30 per cent of graduates, and in South Korea from the top 5 per cent.

  • Researchers often link the educational achievements of teachers with those of their students, citing the US, where relatively few top graduates go into the profession and many schools underperform. In Scandinavia, however, teaching is the destination for the best graduates.
  • According to the Training and Development Agency for Schools, in 2005- 06, 32 per cent of entrants to BEd courses did not have any A-levels. Of those that did, the average tariff score was 269. By comparison, the average tariff score for medicine was 473, equivalent to almost four A grades.
  • The Department for Children, Schools and Families secondary school curriculum and staffing survey for 2007 shows that only 56 per cent of pupils in secondary modern schools were taught maths by a teacher with an appropriate post A-level qualification, compared with 73 per cent in 11- to-16 comprehensives and 88 per cent in grammar schools. The survey reveals that children in the poorest areas of the country are least likely to be taught by well-qualified teachers.
  • An investigation by Buckingham University in June 2008 found that 24 per cent of state schools had no teachers with a specialism in physics. It also revealed that applicants for physics postgraduate certificate in education courses had dropped by 27 per cent in 2006.
  • In June 2008, a paper from the National Foundation for Educational Research found that across all subjects, the proportion of lessons being taught by teachers with relevant post A-level qualifications was slightly lower in 2007 (79 per cent) than it had been in 2002 (83 per cent).


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