'Move over Simon Schama, it's time teachers were our intellectual guardians'

2nd September 2011 at 01:00
TDA boss Stephen Hillier reveals his plan to make teaching a high-status profession

Turn on the television and it is hard to avoid celebrity academics. From historians Niall Ferguson and Simon Schama to pop-star-turned-physicist Brian Cox, professors are no longer confined to campus.

But according to the man responsible for recruiting the nation's teachers, it is time for academics to step aside and for school staff to become the nation's intellectual gurus.

Stephen Hillier, the new chief executive of the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA), has called for teachers to become the country's "intellectual guardians". He wants them to be able to become university professors, subject experts and faces in the media in a bid to make teaching a "high-status" profession.

"In the next five to 10 years it would be great if, instead of the Simon Schamas and the David Starkeys doing their TV series, it was a teacher doing that kind of thing because it was just accepted that they have that status, like the intellectual gurus of the nation," Mr Hillier says.

"I'd love to see universities have a professorship that a school teacher had a chance of getting. They could be a national expert, still teaching at school, but also doing things in the university wearing their professorial hat."

Mr Hillier has joined the TDA with its end in sight - it is set to become part of the new Teaching Agency next year.

But lack of time has not dimmed his ambition to ensure teachers are better appreciated. Today's entrants to the profession are more highly qualified than ever, but more needs to be done to ensure that we recognise their skills, Mr Hillier says.

He believes the image of teaching is already changing, with more top graduates choosing it as a career.

And this momentum is not about to stop. Education secretary Michael Gove has promised new teaching schools, which will act as the education sector's equivalent of teaching hospitals, and university training schools - primaries and secondaries run by universities that will be centres of research.

Mr Hillier says this "exciting" vision is achievable. He hopes graduates will view teaching as "exclusive", and one of the toughest professions to get into.

In future, teacher hopefuls will have to demonstrate they have something special to offer. Ministers want to make it harder to get a place on a teacher-training course. Literacy and numeracy skills tests will become more rigorous and lecturers will be expected to use personality tests to make sure applicants are suited to the job.

This new approach, alongside changing perceptions of teaching, could mean less people training.

"We've weeded out some people; now they are self-selecting and not applying any more because they know they won't get in," he says.

"In the past, a proportion applied who nobody would want as teachers. Now the idea of teaching being a high-benchmark profession is understood by the public; people thinking 'I will never get into teaching' so they don't apply. Five years ago, people thought 'teaching, you get long holidays with that'.

"We may find we won't get the same number of applications. But those we do get are top quality and that will be what counts."

A total of 62 per cent of the students who finished secondary teacher training during the 200910 academic year had a 2:1 degree or better - a 2 per cent rise on 20089. Among primary trainees this was 63 per cent, up 1 per cent from the previous year.

Mr Hillier believes we should be making radical changes to the job to make better use of these graduates' skills. At the moment, if they want to progress in their career it means leaving the classroom. He thinks this is a waste of their knowledge.

Instead, there should be a new route in the profession so teachers can become subject experts. Just as there are skilled accountants, doctors and lawyers who take on the hardest cases, Mr Hillier wants a new type of teacher who can be renowned "nationally and internationally" for their knowledge.

This would mean two equal career routes for teachers: one where they run schools and another where they can stay in the classroom.

"If you are a doctor in a hospital you can think, 'One day I'd love to be chief executive' or 'I'd love to be a top consultant who is internationally renowned," Mr Hillier says.

"We won't have the equivalent of that in schools in the next five minutes, but I think it's important we have that idea in mind in terms of how the teaching profession might develop in the next 10 years.

"Newly qualified teachers often tell us they went into teaching because of the love of their subject. So this would mean they don't have to say goodbye to that."

It might have been axed by the Government, but Mr Hillier insists the fact that universities can be more discerning about who they accept to a teacher-training course shows the TDA has been successful.

"People are now saying teaching is cool. You would never have got that when I was young."

The Teaching Agency will be formed from the ashes of the Training and Development Agency, the General Teaching Council for England and the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency. About two-thirds of its work will be organising teacher supply and qualifications.

Mr Hillier and his colleagues are now close to "hammering out" the staffing structure for the new body, but also have a crucial role to play in delivering ambitious plans to give schools more responsibility for training teachers.

It will be a hectic year, with many challenges. Mr Hillier's ambitions mean it could get even busier.



- Montem Junior School, London.

- Highbury Grove Comprehensive, London.

- Politics degree from the City of London Polytechnic.

- MSc in politics from Birkbeck, University of London.


In education administration since 1978. Began at the Schools Council working on curriculum reform. Then private secretary to former education secretary Chris Patten. Helped establish the first grant-maintained schools and set up the Teacher Training Agency.

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