Education: The danger of changing the subject

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The Independent Online
'NOTHING is worse than a teacher being asked to cover an unfamiliar subject for a non-exam group on a Friday afternoon. The children get bored, the teacher loses confidence, and everybody suffers.'

So argues Brian Lowe, a former secondary school headteacher in the Midlands and Humberside, who has been entrusted for the last four years with the task of discovering how many of Britain's teachers are not qualified in the subjects they teach.

In all 20 local education authorities he has visited, Mr Lowe has found teachers taking classes in subjects they had not even studied to A-level. In some cases they were preparing children for GCSE in subjects in which they had passed no exams.

'However professional a teacher is, they must have confidence in and enthusiasm for the subject they teach,' argues Mr Lowe. 'They can't have the necessary knowledge or understanding or confidence if they haven't studied the subject themselves.'

No one has counted the number of lessons taught by unqualified teachers. In order to find out, and with backing from the Department for Education, Mr Lowe has written a report to be sent to all local education authorities this month explaining how they can carry out a computerised audit to reveal any inadequacies in their teaching forces.

Auditing the teaching force is straightforward, relatively cheap (start-up costs are around pounds 20,000 for each local authority) and accepted as a good way of helping to put better qualified teachers into classrooms.

But it has been sucked into the whirlpool of education politics. The Department for Education, pointing out that the predicted teacher recruitment crisis has failed to materialise, says local authorities must finance and sustain their own audits. The local authorities, facing a substantial diminution of their role over the next few years, argue that the supply of quality teachers is the Government's responsibility.

The resulting stalemate can be seen in authorities such as Oxfordshire which, with Brian Lowe's help, carried out a secondary school audit last year and planned one for primary schools this October. Like other authorities in the South-east, Oxfordshire has had difficulty recruiting teachers in recent years. Its audit revealed that more than 30 per cent of its teachers were teaching classes for which they were not qualified.

Some might argue that less bright children do not need teachers with subject expertise. Rick Harmes, the Oxfordshire education officer responsible for the county's audit, is not among them: 'It's important for teacher quality whether the teachers are qualified in the subjects they teach. All children are entitled to quality teaching.'

Yet Oxfordshire council, pleading its uncertain future, has postponed indefinitely plans to update its secondary schools audit, and carry out the primary schools one. Mr Lowe, having proved that computerised auditing could help improve teacher quality, is left wondering whether his four years' work will have any effect at all.