Raise the bar, Dave, but raise the rest too

12th March 2010 at 00:00

I love election campaigns. I love all those promises that never quite make it into the light of reality, and I love the way those pledges are not quite what they seem anyway. Like Dave Cameron's idea that all teachers should have a 2:2 degree.

Cue outburst of harrumphing from the child-centred lobby who believe you need a heart not a brain to nurture young things, and snorting from all those teachers who are offended because they only have a - horror, horror - third. The reality is so obvious that it's better to waste your emotional energy on the latest EastEnders episode.

Every organisation needs to recruit the brightest people. That's why Goldman Sachs hoovers up Oxbridge graduates with top degrees and does not hold recruitment fairs searching out low-class degree holders from the University of Netherwallop.

At the same time I've interviewed Cambridge graduates with first-class degrees who could engage meaningfully with a wet paper bag but found a sparky adolescent, or indeed anything else in human form, quite beyond them. I try never just to recruit a teacher. I'm always looking for future leaders. So I want brains, heart and a whole lot more besides.

The real issue here is whether the media have fully reported Dave's thoughts, or whether he does not fully understand his own policy. If he does, he will know that the best campaign slogan for this latest wheeze to ratchet up standards is "employ fewer teachers". A real vote winner that, and a book by Fenton Whelan called Lessons Learned explains why.

Mr Whelan has identified the common policies across the world's most successful education systems such as Finland, Singapore and some provinces of Canada. Forget class size or the curriculum, forget whether the school is run by the local authority, a trust or under franchise to the Oompaloompas. It's the quality of the teacher that makes the difference. Funny how often we forget the bleedin' obvious.

If you want good teaching, you have to be able to select only the best people. Countries such as Finland have succeeded in making teaching an attractive, high-status profession. I guess if the choice is between teacher and sauna salesman, this is not surprising.

Still, a quarter of young people in Finland rate teaching as their top career choice, with 3.6 applicants for every teaching training place; compare that with 1.2 in England.

What is more, we need to raise the status in all subjects. I have recently advertised for both art and maths teachers. I had plenty of art applicants with top-class degrees and vast experience. Barely any of the maths applicants had a degree in the subject, let alone above a 2:2.

Figures from PricewaterhouseCoopers on the additional lifetime earnings of someone with a degree compared with someone who leaves school with two A-levels show why: someone with an arts degree earns an additional #163;34,000 over their lifetime, a maths degree generates an extra #163;242,000. Maths graduates need to be seduced into teaching with all the subtleties of Mata Hari.

Experience in other countries shows that Dave is on the right track. Raising the bar to entry into the profession raises its status. The harder something is to acquire, the more special it becomes and the more we want it. We prefer Jimmy Choo to Clarkes, Chablis to Carlsberg.

Teach First recruits top graduates to work in the toughest city schools. Through careful branding and rigorous selection procedures it has succeeded in making itself a high-status option, with five applicants for every place.

Many government policies have already succeeded in raising the profession's status: the Training and Development Agency for Schools' carefully targeted advertising; the golden hellos and David Puttnam's Teaching Awards love-in have all played their part. Salaries have undoubtedly risen in real terms over the last 10 years, and now is the time to bump up the starting salary further to attract graduates while city competitors are still on their knees. Dave needs to continue all these policies and add one of his own: employ fewer teachers.

According to Mr Whelan's analysis, there is no evidence that countries which have invested in reducing class sizes have raised standards as a result. It is an enormously popular policy with parents, who like the idea that they get the same small class size for free that the Ponsonbys have to mortgage their dog to afford at St Sweetface's Prep. Teachers love it because there are fewer books to mark and fewer names to forget.

Yet if you reduce class sizes, you need more teachers. If you need more teachers, you cannot afford to select only the best, you have to take what you can get. The quality of teaching falls. And it is the quality of teaching above all that makes the difference between high and low-performing schools. Yes, Dave, your policy of raising entry requirements will raise standards: but only if you do all the other things to raise the status of the profession as well.

Roger Pope, Principal, Kingsbridge Community College, Devon.

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