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

7th August 2009 at 01:00
If a recent think-tank report is to be believed, the profession is in `crisis' and English schools are staffed by the under-qualified and demoralised. Richard Vaughan reports

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

The report published data comparing the recruitment and standards of teachers in England with their counterparts in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, New Zealand and the United States. Although its recommendations are framed with England in view, since education policy is now devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, much of the comparative evidence applies to the UK.

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, would 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 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, commissioned by Politeia, written by a mixed bag of academics and educationists. They include former chief schools inspector Chris Woodhead, leading maths teacher trainer David Burghes of Plymouth University, senior research fellow in medieval philosophy at the University of Cambridge John Marenbon, and editor of The Times Good University Guide John O'Leary.

Professor Burghes claimed the data showed teachers in England have an inadequate subject knowledge, which "bedevils" the profession. "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 in mathematics. Not only is this the minimum entry level, it is also the most likely entry qualification in mathematics," he said.

"This qualification has often taken some years before the training period (five or more years for PGCEs) so that there may be little knowledge beyond basic numeracy about which a trainee feels confident and, sometimes, 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 is no longer a profession. "These days, student teachers and aspirant heads are lobotomised into an unthinking acceptance of the Government's plans. Who would want to be a member of this non-profession?" he asked.

"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 percent, in fact, of this latter group have two A-levels at all."

Politeia's commissioners give a host of reasons England's teachers fall behind the other countries, but only John O'Leary mentions salaries in his analysis. The data compiled shows England is competitive when it comes to starting salaries but only New Zealand has lower (see box).

Their findings were condemned by 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 said it was "nonsense" to claim only two GCSEs were needed to enter the profession. James Noble-Rogers, the chief executive, said: "As far as the overall quality of training is concerned, Ofsted reports conclude that the vast majority of courses are either good or excellent. 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 need to also have either relevant A-levels or equivalent plus GCSE science."

The Department for Children Schools and Families went a step further, claiming the report was "simply nonsense masquerading as serious comment". A spokesman said: "Teaching is the number one choice for graduates. The latest figures show that 95 per cent of primary school trainees this year have a 2:2 degree or better, and two-thirds of primary school teachers qualifying in 2006-07 had done a subject degree before completing an intensive one-year postgraduate degree or training in schools."

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