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'Why schools should see the recruitment crisis as an opportunity to innovate'

Ideas – including using Skype to beam subject specialists into the classroom – should be allowed to blossom, writes a former schools' minister

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Last week’s speech by Sir Andrew Carter at the Policy Exchange session on teacher shortages offered plenty of headlines. Inevitably, my attention was drawn to comments that we should use technology to ease the problems. 

In essence, can Skype-ing subject specialists into the classroom help?

First off, we know that quality teaching works. If we want to improve education outcomes we should invest in teaching, and if we care about quality then subject specialism is key. We also know that teaching is fundamentally human, and that for as long as we are looking to stimulate learning we should shy away from roboticising teaching through technology.

However in some subjects, and in some parts of the country, it is hard to find those specialists. Heads, therefore, have to use more supply teachers, non-specialists and unqualified teachers, or even drop the teaching of whole subjects. In that context Skype is at least worth considering.

Last month I visited Rock Ridge High School in West Virginia. While I was there I popped in to Mr Hanke’s senior year physics class. What I observed was a class being delivered over Skype from a local university to a class of about 30 students. The interaction was OK and there was good student engagement – at stake were university credits attached to the successful completion of the course.

I asked students later about how the same class did the previous year. They told me they all did well and got their credits. They also told me that Mr Hanke was their favourite teacher. So maybe in this case it was important to have a great subject specialist in the room to realise the value of university instruction delivered remotely.

I was accompanied on that visit by Mina Patel from VCfGL. Video Conferencing for Global Learning recruits teachers in Redbridge to teach English to classes of 30 in Uruguay and Brazil. The outcomes are very good and it also provides good CPD for the local teachers.

In this case the quality of the video is much better than Skype. It can also connect classrooms to field locations like the Australian bush and an observation station in Antarctica. But the scheme does depend on a teacher being with the pupils at the other end.

The final example of innovation around subject specialism is the Brilliant Club here in the UK. This is not technology-driven, so rather than beaming in academics over Skype, this social enterprise physically brings doctoral and postdoctoral researchers into non-selective state schools to lead tutorials for small groups of outstanding pupils. Here there is no requirement for a teacher to be present but it doesn’t fill in for a teacher vacancy.  

These are three examples of innovation around technology and subject specialism. They don’t replace teachers, they enhance teaching. The only example I know of technology-enabled solutions to deal with an absence of teachers is the work of Sugata Mitra.

Since he won the TED Prize in 2013, Sugata’s work is well known, and controversial. From the hole in the wall computer to Skype Grannies, he is not trying to deny the importance of teaching; he is interested in how technology can help children who don’t have a teacher.

The shortage of teachers is a big problem for some schools. We shouldn’t overreact – the vast majority of vacancies still get filled – but if there is not a teacher then both Sugata and Sir Andrew are right to look for an innovative way out. From what I have seen there are options, including the three I have highlighted, that should inspire us.

Never waste a good crisis – we should treat it as an opportunity to innovate.

Jim Knight is chief education adviser to TES Global

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