In search of the brightestand best

4th June 2004 at 01:00
Personalised learning is a great idea, says John Dunford, as he urges teachers to recognise and develop their skills

Mobile phones are fine until they go wrong, when you have to spend an interminable time negotiating over the repair before emerging with a new phone with numerous additional facilities that only those under the age of 25 know how to use. My time in the Carphone Warehouse last week was not in vain, since the long wait gave me plenty of time to muse on the display of brightly-coloured phone cases and other accessories, above which was the word Personalisation in large letters.

The same week's TES discussed personalisation of learning, reporting people's concern that government ministers were using the term without a clear definition of what it means in the classroom. Far from complaining that we have not been told in precise terms (and several ring binders) how to personalise learning, we should be delighted to have the opportunity to mould it to our own definition. After all, personalising learning is surely what all good teachers try to do for the learners of varied ability and background in their class.

George Bernard Shaw was so wrong when he said that "He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches." Teaching is a multi-task, multi-skilled job and teachers have more skills than they realise. They have a range of important communication skills, including public speaking. Teachers' information technology skills, so long lagging behind those of pupils, are catching up fast. For people skills, teachers score more highly than most employees, because of their varied experience of observation, empathy, caring and support, dealing with people of all ages and many roles. Teachers have finely-tuned skills in what business would term customer relations. Time management skills are important, both in lessons and in dealing with the workload.

It is not only heads who exhibit leadership, since every teacher is a leader with daily opportunities to influence and lead young and old, often in directions they are unwilling to follow.

Add to all this, emotional intelligence and subject knowledge in particular fields, backed by a degree and a postgraduate qualification and you have a curriculum vitae with which many people outside teaching would struggle to compete.

The people behind Teach First, a programme started in 2003 to recruit highly- qualified university graduates and place them in London schools for two years, recognise the transferability of teachers' skills. The 165 Teach First teachers in the first cohort are in the final term of their first year, after which they will obtain Qualified Teacher Status. At the end of the two years, they will either leave to take highly-paid jobs in the private sector or stay in teaching. In New York, on the equivalent Teach for America scheme, there is a 40 per cent retention rate in teaching.

These remarkable young people - graduates of top UK universities with first or upper second-class degrees - have not merely survived the heat of a London school for a year; they have made a remarkable contribution. Those who remain in teaching are likely to achieve rapid promotion and be among the leaders of British education in future. Those who leave after two years are likely to be the leaders in whatever field they choose, carrying with them the skills they learned in the classroom.

Brett Wigdortz, chief executive of Teach First, formerly a management consultant with McKinsey's, says that the project "aims to build a group of future leaders who, whatever career they embark on in business, education, or elsewhere in the public sector, will change the long-term prospects of those in the most challenging areas in which they work".

To help prepare them for these challenging leadership roles, the Teach First programme includes a foundation of leadership course, partly during the summer holidays, taught jointly by the London Institute of Education and the Tanaka Business School at Imperial College.

The young people will be helped to develop the skills they have acquired in their first year's teaching into those required for leadership in any graduate career. Three weeks will be spent on internships at one of 50 blue chip London employers, where they will work on projects to extend their knowledge in areas such as strategic planning, finance and marketing, and develop skills in leadership, communication and mentoring.

The Teach First teachers are exceptional young people, who have thrown themselves with enthusiasm into the job of teaching in some of the most challenging schools in the country. But many other young teachers are exceptional too and they should also be offered a foundation of leadership course.

If we want to attract into teaching the brightest and best of each generation of graduates, we should recognise that these people want to learn about leadership at an early stage and we should sell teaching as a job in which they can develop many of the skills and behaviours they will need in future leadership positions, whatever career they subsequently follow.

It would be good for them to learn in this way and good for the profession to recognise that we have valued transferable skills, even if we often under-rate them and take them for granted. Personalising learning is one such skill and there is little doubt that any teachers who went to work for the Carphone Warehouse would have plenty to contribute to their policy of personalisation.

John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association leadership 30

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