Bethan Marshall: Untrained teachers get eaten alive

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The Independent Online

During half term, I started to read An Instance of the Fingerpost by Ian Pears. It's a curious book set in the early days of the Restoration. Among other things, it charts the beginnings of modern science and medicine, looking at how these disciplines separated themselves from alchemy and quackery. Located in Oxford, it mingles fictional and historical characters to create a 17th-century whodunit.

During half term, I started to read An Instance of the Fingerpost by Ian Pears. It's a curious book set in the early days of the Restoration. Among other things, it charts the beginnings of modern science and medicine, looking at how these disciplines separated themselves from alchemy and quackery. Located in Oxford, it mingles fictional and historical characters to create a 17th-century whodunit.

I mention the book because it sheds light on the antecedents of our views of two professions - medicine and teaching. Pears notes that even in the mid-17th century medicine had begun to require a professional training of sorts. Empirical evidence and scientific proof, though still contested, were becoming increasingly important in treatment.

But teaching is not seen in the same light. Although the politics of Oxford are not ignored, teaching is seen as an occupation for the genteel fallen on hard times or a natural extension of scholarship. Neither the efficacy of teaching methods or any notion of pedagogy are considered.

This discrepancy in the way the professions are seen is reflected in contemporary attitudes. It shows itself in the case of Tristram Jones-Parry, the retiring headmaster of Westminster School, who told the world that he was prevented from teaching in a state school by his lack of formal training. A furore erupted that Jones-Parry, with 30 years experience in the independent sector - much of that time at one of Britain's top public schools - should have been treated in this way. Such a brouhaha would not happen if he were a doctor, because he would have been trained. Outraged that his beneficence was being spurned and his experience denied, The Daily Telegraph made Jones-Parry's case headline news. The newspaper's disbelief was echoed across the press as a kind of political correctness gone mad.

Experience is not enough in the medical profession. If a doctor, however long he had been practising, were found to have no recognised training, he would face the sack and a possible jail sentence for fraud. I'm not suggesting that Jones-Parry is doing anything fraudulent or that unqualified teachers in the independent sector are quacks, but I was surprised, in all the debate about his case, that no one said it was a good thing to demand qualifications from those who teach the 93 per cent of children in the state sector.

Being good at your subject does not make you a good teacher. As someone who selects prospective teachers for the postgraduate certificate of education - the qualification Jones-Parry was not required to have in a private school - I have often rejected candidates with excellent degrees. Part of the art of teaching is helping pupils grasp ideas in which they may have no interest or comprehension. Some able candidates cannot do this. They hesitate in their answers, mumble into their beards, fail to make eye contact and use abstruse language. Put them in front of a class of average teenagers and they would be eaten alive.

Even those who come on the course with a few years' experience of Tefl (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) find the hurly burly of secondary schools takes some adjustment. This is not because comprehensives are ill-disciplined and out of control - though some are more challenging than others - but because, unlike the private sector, the intake is diverse. Learning how to teach the full ability range is not easy and to assume that anyone with a bit of gumption can do it is an insult to those who have trained. Teaching clever boys at Westminster is certainly demanding but is not proof of success in the maintained sector. Why should it be unreasonable to require that someone who has not taught average pupils in the state sector should have to prove their worth before doing so?

Teaching may never have the same status as medicine but it does not happen by magic. Good teachers learn about and improve their craft through training, evidence and reflection. And we should demand that they do. There is no alchemy at work in the classroom.

The writer is a lecturer in education at King's College London

education@independent.co.uk

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