Let's seize the 'teaching is sexy' moment

27th March 2009 at 00:00
We have our pick of graduates: now is the time to recruit great teachers and raise the quality of state schools

Here's a quick staffroom party game. Think of three words you would never expect to see together in the same sentence. Of course, there are obvious ones: "I love cover" or "Bring back Sats." There are satirical ones, such as "Manchester United relegated" or, from the mouth of Sir Fred Goodwin, "Here's the refund." And the downright surreal: "Teaching is sexy."

Now there are three words we never thought we'd see. Suddenly, not only do we find ourselves blinking in shock through the smouldering after-glow from the demolition of the key stage 3 tests; we also find ourselves in a "must-have" career, apparently one of the top three areas of graduate recruitment. It's as if we've died and gone to Scandinavia.

This is unnerving for those of us who spent the early parts of our careers feeling slightly bashful about it while our university pals went off to do things that they swaggeringly implied were more interesting, glamorous or important. They left us feeling defensive about the holidays, embarrassed by low public esteem, and quietly squirming through media coverage of the Easter teacher union conference season where - if memory serves me correctly - bearded men described a world called "schools" that felt a million miles from where I was working.

Who would have thought it? Teaching is now sexy. In that unexpected - not to say oxymoronic - phrase lies an opportunity and a risk.

It's easy to come up with a variety of superficial reasons that recruitment to teaching is riding high. There's the economic one: in a country with burgeoning unemployment, teaching looks enticingly secure. There's the sociological view that says Thatcher's children are growing up to realise that the promise of funny-money salaries and decadent lifestyles left them not only stranded when the economy caved in, but also somehow empty and morally adrift. The moral argument is the one we're hearing the most.

Thus in a world where many old assumptions appear to have foundered - such as a bank being a safe place to stick your money - people look to a profession with "moral purpose", where their job means more than notching up zeros on your salary.

All, or some, or none of these explanations may be true. Certainly for the teaching profession there's an opportunity. And this time, unlike in previous economic downturns, there's a difference. Now we realise just how important it is that if we're genuinely going to raise standards across all our schools, then it comes down to some pretty simple ingredients. We need to get the right people into the profession, then we need to keep them there - the very things that the educational players of the international premier league know so well.

Michael Barber's groundbreaking report for McKinsey, How the World's Best Performing School Systems Come Out on Top, is much quoted on this issue. Well, now it's time to stop quoting and start doing it. Because what Barber reports from Finland is that entry to teacher training is rigorous and relevant. Candidates must first demonstrate the skills that make great teachers: communication, literacy, numeracy, problem-solving. Then, in stage 2, they are assessed for communication skills, willingness to learn and motivation for teaching. On graduation from teacher training, they are assessed further before being unleashed into the classroom.

Now's our chance to get more of the right people into the profession - those with the skills and qualities that will make great teachers. These aren't always to do with intellectual prowess, so let's be wary of simply upping our expectation of paper qualifications.

More important is that the people recruiting these would-be teachers are those who are ultimately accountable for the quality of education in schools - ie, us, people who work in schools. We should be leading the selection process, appointing on to relevant and practical training programmes the people who will become outstanding teachers. We should become the gatekeepers of the profession and be held accountable for our judgments.

The risk is that instead we skitter about like kids in a half-remembered Woolworths pick 'n' mix, unable to believe our luck that lots of people want to join us. Well, it's not about quantity, it's about quality. Now's our chance to draw in from a range of backgrounds an exceptional new generation of motivated people who will help make our system great.

Then, having got the best people into the profession, we want to keep them. That other Finnish import - the masters in teaching and learning - may be one answer. But there's a risk that we create something overcomplicated that - like so many other professional development wheezes of the past - actually takes our focus away from the classroom.

Perhaps the best thing we could do to retain our best teachers in an impending age of rare cover is giving them time for shared planning, observation and evaluation - endlessly honing what the headteacher and author Michael Marland described as the "craft of the classroom".

Some may also be retained through first-rate, locally-based leadership opportunities across a cluster of schools. Then we might finally shatter the woeful statistic that the average time of progression from NQT to headteacher is 20 years.

Because that's the challenge. One little remarked aspect of Jade Goody's death this week was why she was making money for her two young sons: to send them to private school. For Ms Goody, as for so many whose education left them feeling patronised or disappointed, state schools were synonymous with second best.

So here's the best opportunity we've had - to seize the "teaching is sexy" moment, to recruit great teachers, and to stamp out the postcode lottery of good and bad state schools.

Otherwise we'll be remembered for three words that too easily go together: "We screwed up."

Geoff Barton, Headteacher, King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

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