State of the nations: are England's teachers bottom of the league?

31st July 2009 at 01:00
If a recent think-tank report is to be believed, the profession is in 'crisis' and our schools are staffed by the under-qualified and demoralised. But a furious education establishment is having none of it, as Richard Vaughan reports

Last week, right-wing think-tank, Politeia, ensured the summer holidays started under a storm cloud for many teachers after it claimed they were the "worst trained in the developed world".

The report, Teachers Matter, published data comparing the recruitment and standards of teachers in England with their counterparts in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, New Zealand and the US.

According to the research, England's teachers were less qualified than each of the countries it was compared with, requiring just two GCSE C-grades as a minimum school-leaving qualification to enter the profession. Even the US asks for more in terms of a minimum Sats score or high school diploma, it said.

The report added that while teachers in England were more likely to have gained a broader "education" qualification, their counterparts in other countries, particularly Germany and France, will have studied their chosen subjects at degree level.

Politeia said its findings showed a profession in "crisis" and that England was lagging behind other countries in the Western world, particularly continental Europe.

"Thirty to 50 per cent of new teachers leave the profession in England within five years of starting and, overall, 12 per cent leave each year or retire - far higher than in other European countries," it said.

"Moreover, English teachers are the least educated," it added. "Official standards for entry are pitched far lower than elsewhere, with only two GCSEs in English and maths required."

The report also draws on individual responses to the data, which were commissioned by Politeia and written by a mixed bag of academics and educationists.

They include former chief schools inspector Chris Woodhead, leading maths teacher trainer Professor David Burghes of Plymouth University, senior research fellow in medieval philosophy at the University of Cambridge Dr John Marenbon, and editor of The Times Good University Guide John O'Leary.

Professor Burghes claimed the data showed that teachers here have an inadequate subject knowledge, which "bedevils" the profession - particularly in the primary sector.

"In the primary sector, the problem is more fundamental. The minimum entry level in mathematics to initial teacher training for primary is a grade C at GCSE. It is also the most likely entry qualification in mathematics," Professor Burghes said.

"This qualification has often been taken some years before the training period (five or more years for PGCEs) so there may be little knowledge beyond basic numeracy about which a trainee feels confident, and sometimes even basic numeracy scares them."

Dr Marenbon said the report's figures show teaching as "an unhappy profession". Citing the recruitment and retention figures, he claimed that a profession cannot be happy "when it cannot attract enough recruits, nor retain those who have already joined it".

Mr Woodhead said it was unsurprising that England struggles to find enough teachers as it the job is no longer a profession. "These days, student teachers and aspirant headteachers are lobotomised into an unthinking acceptance of the Government's plans. Who would want to be a member of this non-profession?" he asked.

He added: "This crisis is already upon us in that only 41 per cent of the student teachers who take the PGCE route have a degree in the subject they are going to teach, and, worse, only 50 per cent of the 20 per cent who take the BEd route have two good A-levels. Only 65 per cent, in fact, of this latter group have two A-levels at all!"

Politeia's commissioners give a host of reasons why England's teachers fall behind the comparator countries, but only one, John O'Leary, mentions salaries. The data compiled shows that England is competitive on starting salaries, but only New Zealand has a lower final salary.

Whether or not pay is the determining factor in a graduate's decision to join the profession is up for debate. However, it seems obtuse to presume that the prospective wage has little bearing on career choice.

Unsurprisingly, Politeia's findings were condemned from all corners of the education establishment. Teachers' unions were quick to defend the profession, with Chris Keates, NASUWT general secretary, describing the report as "outrageous".

The Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers also rubbished the report, saying it was "nonsense" to claim only two GCSEs were needed to enter the profession.

James Noble-Rogers, UCET chief executive, told The TES: "As far as the overall quality of training is concerned, Ofsted reports conclude that the vast majority of courses are either good or excellent."

He added: "The proportion of entrants to postgraduate programmes with good-quality degrees is high and on the increase. It is also nonsense to claim that you only need GCSEs in maths and English to enter an undergraduate ITT programme: all entrants also need to have either relevant A-levels or equivalent and GCSE science."

The Department for Children, Schools and Families went a step further, claiming the report was "simply nonsense masquerading as serious comment".

A DCSF spokesman said: "Teaching is now the number one choice for graduates. The latest figures show that 95 per cent of primary school trainee teachers this year have a 2:2 degree or better and two-thirds of primary school teachers qualifying in 200607 had done a subject degree before completing an intensive one-year postgraduate degree or training in schools."

But in the same week, amid all the hyperbole and bile, the Training and Development Agency for Schools released its figures on the average qualifications of the teaching workforce.

As revealed in The TES, the statistics show that more than four out of 10 undergraduate trainee primary school teachers do not possess a single A-level.

According to the figures, just 57 per cent have any A-levels and only 8 per cent of the trainees came through on higher education access courses.

This means 35 per cent of trainee primary teachers have no qualification beyond their GCSEs. Professor John Howson, managing director of Education Data Surveys, which compiled the data used in Politeia's report, argues that this is where the debate should be focused.

"There are people who are getting on to teacher training courses who have failed all their A-levels. What are we doing with these people coming into teaching?" he asked.

Professor Howson believes that the data he collated should be used as a starting point for a debate on where England's teaching profession is heading. He said the figures should be used to track which schools teachers are being employed at and whether this has a direct effect on the pupil outcomes.

"There needs to be a following through from Government," he said. "Where do those teachers with low-level standards of qualifications end up teaching?

"If there are schools that are not achieving the expected levels - and we know there are - we need to know who is staffing them and what was their route into teaching?"

But Nansi Ellis, head of education policy at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, rubbished this argument. "Teaching is both an intellectual and highly practical profession. Being an academic genius does not mean you will be any good at teaching children," she said.

"As well as knowing their subject, teachers need to understand the different ways children learn and develop," Ms Ellis added. "Instead of hysterical reports of so-called under-educated teachers, we should have a proper debate about the skills and knowledge teachers need to be good at teaching children."

Editorial, page 2.

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