Teachers don't need A grades

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The Independent Online
Teaching is very difficult. Dauntingly so. Anybody who has tried to help a child learn to read knows what an endless supply of strategies, patience and inventiveness is required.

So the Commons committee's proposal for a minimum A-level point score for entry to teacher training courses looks at first sight like welcome recognition of reality. The Teacher Training Agency is also backing higher entry standards for trainee teachers. Why, instead of the present average of two Ds and an E, shouldn't teachers have the three As that are required for undergraduate courses in medicine and veterinary science? Raising entry standards, the agency argues, will make the profession seem more attractive and improve its status. Surely teachers whose job is just as challenging as that of many doctors should have the same academic qualifications.

The logic behind the committee's argument looks impeccable. But it isn't. In the first place, even raising the A-level point score to three Cs, the average for all undergraduate courses, would, teacher trainers reckon, empty around three-quarters of university and college training places. At a time when teacher shortages threaten, that makes no sense.

Second, the relationship between A-level scores and teaching ability, especially in a primary schools, is scarcely straightforward. The correlation between final degree result and success on a teacher training course is comparatively low. The logical extension of the argument that we want teachers to have the best possible academic qualifications is that we should let an army of Oxbridge dons loose on primary schools.

A study carried out recently at King's College, Cambridge, into what makes a good maths teacher, found, roughly speaking, that those with the higher qualifications in maths were the worst teachers. The qualifications ranged from the minimum, a C at GCSE, to maths degrees. Not surprisingly, perhaps, those who had struggled a bit more found it easier to help pupils with difficulties. The researchers concluded: "What would appear to matter is not the level of formal qualification but the nature of the knowledge about the subject that teachers have."

As the researchers point out, teachers need to know things. By the time children reach the top of primary school, the national curriculum makes heavy demands on teachers' knowledge. But the research shows that the sort of knowledge they acquire on in-service training courses is more valuable than the conventional academic variety.

The committee's focus on academic qualifications is surely mistaken. MPs are much nearer the mark when they talk about the need to improve the conditions in which teachers work. Most operate in cramped and dilapidated surroundings that no self-respecting office worker would tolerate.

Equally important is the issue which the committee ducks: pay. Not a critical factor in recruitment, say MPs. But haven't the three As required for medical courses something to do with the fact that most doctors end up earning, on average, more than twice as much as teachers?

Perhaps MPs' anxiety about the Government's promise to control public spending explains why they are a bit confused about the role of pay. On the one hand, they seem to be saying that it doesn't matter much. On the other hand, they want fast-track promotion for the brightest as a financial incentive.

Pay counts for others as well as high-flyers. Nigel Gates, former chairman of the Association of College and University Lecturers, has suggested that it may count particularly for the half of the population who, for the most part, do not even countenance the idea of teaching: men. In primary schools, males are an endangered species and in secondary schools they are now outnumbered by women. Teaching, Mr Gates believes, is still seen by men as a second-income job.

Pay and conditions, not As at A-level, are the key to the teacher recruitment crisis.