Sheila Lawlor: Why our teachers are not up to the job

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The Independent Online

Schools are desperate to recruit qualified teachers.

Schools are desperate to recruit qualified teachers. This country has long paid a high price for the dearth of intellectually able and academically qualified teachers: a cycle of educational deprivation from the cradle to the grave. Whitehall now looks likely to shift the emphasis further, from school as teacher to school as child-minder.

The emphasis on teaching must be restored, and the first task is to recruit qualified teachers. This, as Politeia's latest study shows, is not what happens now. Standards of entry to the profession are pathetic, among the lowest in Europe on three vital counts: we have dismal standards of entry, poor subject teaching on the course and an unconvincing qualifications system.

The scale of the problem is revealed in Comparing Standards: Teaching the Teachers. The authors found that the standards of entry here are far lower than in some similar western countries; that the courses do not give enough emphasis to teaching the subjects to be taught, and that qualifications are a bureaucratic nightmare, often measuring the vague, the irrelevant or the bad.

Take entry standards, now pitched so low that a primary teacher here could start training at a standard far lower than in some continental countries. No more than a miserable GCSE pass is demanded here for the two compulsory subjects of maths and English, and two A-levels. By contrast, in countries such as France or Germany, a number of academic subjects taught at primary school must be taken to a standard higher than our A-level (and much higher than under Tomlinson's proposed plan).

What about the BEd courses themselves, where primary teachers tend to be trained? Many fail to give sufficient emphasis to the subjects of the primary school curriculum - for example history or English, maths or science. Instead, subject teaching has no more than a slice of the time to be shared with "professional" studies and practical training. And, to qualify, students and their teachers are bound by the "targetitis" that has bedevilled every area of life, with 42 criteria or "Standards for Qualified Teacher Status" (some with multiple parts) needed to qualify, leading to a mere box- ticking exercise. The upshot is that those who bear responsibility for teaching the teachers are cut short of the power, the funds and the responsibility that are needed to do the job.

And so as the "qualified" teacher enters the classroom, the dismal cycle of low expectation, low standards of subject knowledge, continues at primary school. To this the government is blind as is its Teacher Training Agency, for whom a Kafka-esque system of "spin and target" accommodates the ever poorer standards. Just as the university regulator sets out to shift the balance in favour of birth, not clearly measured ability, the TTA steps up its glossy advertising campaign which brings in the wrong sort of applicants.

What can be done? First, the standard at which potential teachers enter the profession must be raised. Maths and English must be pitched at A-level standard, either before entry or made up in the first year of the course. Trainees, too, should have A-levels in - or near - some of the subjects on the primary curriculum.

Second, teachers should have to master the subjects they will teach at school and be obliged to train on the job. Subject departments should be responsible for teaching and examining. Once the subject is mastered, the candidate should train on the job, with a choice of training model. The Politeia authors favour one of two options. David Burghes recommends a University Practice Schools model where schools work in partnership with the universities. By contrast Smithers, Woodhead and Marenbon press for full responsibility for schools. The choice can go to the trainee. All agree that the criteria and the quangos should be sent packing. Those who teach the teachers should have the power to do so - and the funds, all the funds, should be paid to those who train: entirely in the case of schools for school-based training, or pro rata to the university schools partnership.

Sheila Lawlor is the director of Politeia, which has just published 'Comparing Standards: Teaching the Teachers' by David Burghes, Bob Moon, John Marenbon, Alan Smithers and Chris Woodhead, edited by her and available from 22 Charing Cross Rd, London WC2