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The Government was right: as the 2010 White Paper said, the best systems “train their teachers rigorously”

Blog Editor, IOE Digital31 July 2012

Chris Husbands
“The evidence from around the world shows us that the most important factor in determining the effectiveness of a school system is the quality of its teachers. The best education systems draw their teachers from the most academically able, and select them carefully to ensure that they are taking only those people who combine the right personal and intellectual qualities.  These systems train their teachers rigorously at the outset”.
This quotation gets it pretty well right: It is absolutely true that the best education systems in the world attract the brightest and best into teaching and then train them rigorously.  Put differently, in a different quotation: “The most successful countries, from the Far East to Scandinavia, are those where teaching has the highest status as a profession”.
Both quotations are from this government’s 2010 White Paper, The Importance of Teaching: the first quotation is from the body of the text and the second from the introduction, written by the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. In 2010, they got it absolutely correct. It makes it all the more difficult to understand why, just eighteen months later, they are getting it wrong. The decision to remove the requirement that those teaching in (publicly-funded) Academy schools should have Qualified Teacher Status flies in the face of evidence nationally and internationally.
Internationally, the evidence is strong: the status of the teaching profession is related to the quality and status of initial teacher education. England has a very, very good story to tell here. Not least as a result of reforms introduced by the last Conservative government in 1992, requiring all universities to work in close partnership with schools, initial teacher education in England is rigorous, relevant and of high quality. The Ofsted evidence is strong: in 2011, Ofsted reported that highest quality teacher education was to be found in university-led partnerships. Moreover, visitors from around the world come to England to find out how to improve the quality of teacher education. This is a great national success story. Close working relationships between schools and universities, a focus on both research and practice and a concern with standards and pedagogy have produced some exceptional teacher education. There is simply no research evidence at all to suppose that lowering the bar and recruiting significant numbers of unqualified teachers will do anything other than lower standards.
The professional skills of teachers matter hugely. The importance of unpacking subject knowledge in ways which support pupil learning; of understanding how young minds develop; of the ability to plan for the learning of all, including the most gifted and the most challenging; of being able to assess and use assessment to improve teaching; of being able to deploy a range of behaviour management strategies. Teaching is a complex, higher order skill and it depends on high quality training.  None of these things matter any less because a school is an academy or free school rather than a community or voluntary aided school. 
One of the reasons cited by the government for the rule change is that it brings academies into line with independent schools, who are not required to hire those with qualified teacher status. But this makes two errors: first, most independent schools do hire teachers who have QTS, and, secondly, independent schools are not publicly funded. A second reason cited by government is that the rule change will allow schools to hire those with specific skills – talented musicians to teach music, scientists with expertise in industry and so on. But this argument too collapses. First, because of the flexible, partnership based approach to teacher education in his country it is possible to hire people and train them through an employment based scheme. Secondly, the approach equates expert subject knowledge with teaching expertise. Teaching is not simply about imparting facts. It is about engaging young minds, about inspiring learning, about being able to plan the next steps in learning.
The government’s decision is at the very least regrettable. It will do nothing to raise standards and nothing to enhance the status of teaching as a profession. Earlier this year, the government withdrew its plans for taxes on pasties, mobile homes and charitable donations. David Cameron said that the time that it showed “strength and grit” for a government to admit a mistake. It should do so on this measure if it wants to realise the ambitions of the 2010 White Paper.