Here we are again on teacher development

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With another general election looming, education and teacher education is already featuring as a battle ground. Should our children be taught by qualified teachers or not? William Stow wonders whether this headline debate is a distraction from bigger issues and fails to address the key point – how do we recruit AND retain the best teachers?

goldfish jumping from one bowl to another“Morning!”

Here we are again! Teachers – should they be qualified, or not? Political debate, like the Pythonesque goldfish, circles the bowl in a state of amnesia, revisiting the same pointless polarities for the sake of sound bites and ‘clear water’ between the parties, whilst signally failing to get to the crux of the matter.

The latest unedifying spectacle has centred around whether or not Tristram Hunt was being intentionally rude to nuns in a recent showing of Question Time, when the subject at hand was whether teachers should be qualified or not. He made the cardinal sin of being drawn into the same personal point-scoring as the Secretary of State and her colleagues are prone to, whenever there are exchanges over education in the House of Commons.  The playground banter usually ends up with the parties swapping insults about their own privileged educational backgrounds, instead of debating the real issues.

Mr Hunt has made a rod for his own back. It seems, at times, as if his sole response on education policy at present always returns to the same answer – ‘we believe all teachers should be qualified’. But then, instead of focusing on the crucial issues, he comes up with gimmicks such as the teachers’ hippocratic oath. As Nicky Morgan has great delight in pointing out, even left-wing bloggers think that was a turkey of an idea.

But the key question is not whether teachers should be qualified. Of course they should. We would not permit doctors or surgeons to practice on the basis of one standalone year of training. And with 89% of parents, according to a recent poll, wanting their children educated by qualified teachers, no party is going to canvas for election with the idea that no teacher need be qualified.

However, as with the Carter Review, the real danger of this debate is that it focuses, yet again, on the entry point into the profession. While politicians and civil servants are distracted by the implementation of structural change and the marketisation of initial training, potential applicants to teaching are so bewildered by the subsequent array of routes and qualifications available to enable them to enter the profession, that they increasingly do not bother to apply.

Those that do successfully complete their initial teacher education go on to a lottery of in-service professional development. The intensive support provided to teachers in their qualifying year is replaced by a range of realities – outstanding induction and development, with opportunities for further accreditation on the one hand, and virtual abandonment on the other. Yet we have a continual supply of teacher training entrants, 40%+ of whom do not reach beyond five years in the classroom.

The answers actually sit inside the goldfish bowl, not very well hidden behind the plastic seaweed– the 2012 Select Committee Report’s chapter on retaining, valuing and developing teachers. The answers are clear, if we are to address the problem of wastage and retain teachers whose work has the most significant and positive impact on pupil learning. Initial qualification should be the beginning of an entitlement to, and a responsibility for, career-long development. Specifically, the 2014 Sutton Trust report identified that the continual development of teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge and the quality of their instruction has the most effect on student outcomes.  James Toop (2013) argues that this is also about providing compelling and attractive pathways for career development, pointing to the Singaporean, triple track model of teaching, leadership and senior specialist. So the debate should be about extended professional development, rather than particular models or merits of initial qualification.

However, there are other amnesiac goldfish in this bowl – members of the educational establishment. One of the deep ironies of the current debates is that they mirror in some ways, but are the obverse in others, of those in the 1990s. At that time, the fear was of the central prescription and micro-management of what it meant to be a qualified teacher – the creation of a central agency (the TTA) to oversee the precise competences expected of newly qualified teachers and of all requirements of initial teacher training programmes. Now the fear is of the disapplication of the need to be qualified at all, or the total deregulation of qualifications, something which has already occurred in the FE sector.

The enduring theme in the circular debate is the battle for control over teacher professionalism. The political rationale for the introduction of regulated standards for teacher qualification was that the ‘licensed autonomy’ of the profession had led to scandal, secrecy and a politicization of teaching. Depending on your party allegiance, you regarded this politicisation either as the advance of the Blob, or the victory of the forces of conservatism that Tony Blair felt were endemic in the teaching profession.

In the current iteration of the argument, we appear to have some difference between the parties. At face value, we might assume that the Tory position is the logical extension of the Thatcherite project – the marketisation of education. Why regulate, when the market (head teachers, parents) can decide whether teachers need to be qualified or not. But why the shift from the Conservative wish to regulate in the 1980s and 90s? Well, in four years, Gove has effectively broken the previous bastions of left-leaning, big government control – the local education authorities, the monopoly of universities in teacher training – and driven a wedge of private governance of schooling into the educational establishment.

On the other side, at face value, we might assume that the Labour position represents a wish to reassert the importance of the state in regulating education.

But on its own, and without commitments to reverse the growth of academies, free schools and the marketisation of teacher training, is this really so different? Would a Labour government do anything other than continue the Blunkett agenda, of breaking the forces of conservatism in schools?

There was a moment in time, back in 2000, when Geoff Whitty expressed some optimism that a liberating middle ground was about to be established. His view was that the establishment of the General Teaching Council for England could represent an opportunity to return to a model of licensed autonomy over professional status, which would put teaching as a profession nearer to law and medicine. The hope was that the GTC(E) would become an independent body, akin to the General Medical Council, or the General Teaching Council (Scotland). However, he had his doubts, fearing that the arm of the ‘evaluative state’ (Neave, 1988) would always reach out over any degree of autonomy.

Well, this fish is back round at the front of the bowl again – we have a set of powerful arguments, as well as an offer of government ‘start-up’ funding, for the establishment of a Royal College of Teaching. Its proponents argue that it can become a genuinely independent body, to oversee the qualification and accreditation of teachers and to become the professional voice of teachers. It could “provide a much-needed boost to the status of the teaching profession and ensure that we have a guardian for teaching standards that maintains confidence in the quality of teaching.” (Hall, 2013: p9)

Sound familiar, fellow swimmers? Would its creation really herald a return to ‘licensed autonomy’? Or is the ‘evaluative state’ unwilling to lease control of one its favourite political footballs?

Will Nemo ever be able to break free and find the open sea? Or will we remain forever trapped in a circular state of forgetfulness, quibbling over trivialities and political soundbites? With an election looming, don’t be distracted by the arguments over initial qualification. Scrutinise the manifestos for signs that any of our politicians are serious about investing in teacher development. That way lies the path to the sea.

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