Why Mr Russell must sit on the horns of a few dilemmas - Open Letter

14th December 2012 at 00:00

Dear Michael,

Some months back, underwhelmed by the Serbia match, I went out, bought a TESS and mulled it over in a nearby hostelry with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. The ensuing 90 minutes were a distinct improvement on the preceding ones.

It was particularly interesting to read a profile of Professor Lindsay Paterson. He is someone of great sagacity.

So I reflected on some of the points he was making.

Are better-educated teachers better teachers on average than less-educated teachers? Yes: the worldwide evidence on that is moderately conclusive.

Is a teacher with Higher maths better than a teacher without it? Yes: anyone with Higher or A-level maths is, other things being equal, more competent at most things. The evidence is even more decisive on that.

The conclusions are a bit frightening for politicians:

1. You could raise both the entry standards and the exit standards for aspiring teachers.

2. That is quite easy to do in a time when demand for new teachers is low (as has been the case for the past five years or so), but tough to do over the next five years when demand for teachers is rising.

3. That is unless one raises teachers' salaries quite dramatically (the Finnish and Singapore models, as I understand it, in two outstandingly good education systems). That would do wonders for the supply of well-qualified aspirant teachers. But Mr Swinney and Mr Salmond would take some persuading.

4. If one accepts the Whelan and Hattie conclusions (ie, that class sizes are, except marginally, irrelevant to pupil achievement), one could accept an increase in school students without proportionately increasing the teacher workforce, ie, the advantages of higher standards from a smaller number of highly select and highly paid teachers are worth the price of having larger classes.

5. The only problem with this analysis (as Hattie points out) is that it is rational, but universally unpopular worldwide with parents, teachers, school students and the public, and therefore with politicians.

So, Cabinet Secretary, you - and all politicians - have an intractable dilemma.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson was once advised by some academics that the right answer to some particularly knotty problem fell within a range of probabilities. To which he said "In Texas a range means a place where I keep my cattle. Just tell me the right answer."

As with the advisers of President Johnson, I am sorry I could not be more helpful on this one, Cabinet Secretary. You have a tough job.

I wish a joyful festive season to you and yours.

Yours sincerely, Iain

Iain Smith was at one time a dean of education in the University of Strathclyde. He writes in a personal capacity.

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