If you go to school, you can be sure your teacher has a formal teaching qualification. Go to college, on the other hand, and you don't have that reassurance. But things are set to change, with all further education teaching staff now expected to gain a qualification within five years of joining.
"The professionalisation of the sector means there will be a status attached to our teaching staff that can't be questioned," says Joy Mercer, senior quality manager, policy, at the Association of Colleges (AoC). "There will also be a proper career structure in place, which is excellent news." Students will benefit, too. "In the last cycle of Ofsted inspections, we have seen a fantastic improvement in quality of teacher training. There has been a real success story, and this is set to continue."
In fact, since colleges are increasingly teaching 14- to 16-year-olds, who are still in statutory education, the need for teaching staff to become at least as qualified as schoolteachers is paramount.
A further advantage of getting all teaching staff qualified is it is likely to enable them to provide better feedback to students. "Giving feedback hasn't been considered particularly important until recently. Students would hand in an assignment and get a grade, and that was that. But we now have evidence that if you get detailed messages about what students can do to improve next time round, it can be the difference between them making a grade or not. With the teaching staff being better qualified – and taught this kind of practice as part of gaining that qualification – this will undoubtedly improve."
But unlike teacher training in the school sector, which is achieved prior to gaining a teaching job, staff in colleges will be expected to do their training on the job. In many ways, this is great – you can immediately put into practice what you learn, for one thing. But, points out Mercer, there is a concern that, for some teaching staff, it is an enormous commitment, especially as it requires at least four hours per week, as well as having their teaching observed on a regular basis – all this over an average of two years. "There's no doubt that some people might struggle with this, particularly on a full teaching timetable. That said, methods of delivery, including blended learning, enables individuals to take part in learning by phone and over the internet, for example."
For some staff, there's the added feeling that they don't need a qualification. "Many teachers who are unqualified have been teaching for years, often decades, and have a wealth of experience, and are excellent teachers. Many already mentor newer teaching staff, so you can see how they might question their need to be qualified," says Mercer.
If teaching is not someone's main career, they may feel even more resistant. "Say, you're a full-time journalist who teaches one day a week. You might not feel you have the time or inclination to invest large amounts of time in what is after all not your primary career. There is a risk that colleges could lose valuable sector experience if these teaching staff decide to walk away."
Peter Mayhew-Smith, the principal of Kingston College, worries that many people who teach vocational subjects may be put off by the need to get a formal qualification. "There are many people in the further education sector that have a real love of their art, craft or trade, and their desire is to share that. It's why they teach and they do it well. Put them in a classroom and they will galvanise a whole room of otherwise disengaged students. They work magic.
"But many such people really struggle with the requirements of the teaching qualification. They don't have experience in doing things like research. I want to see more of the workplace in the classroom and vice versa, so that when we train people in our colleges they are really ready for work.
"The last thing we need – and this is something that employers are always giving us a hard time about – is cohorts of young people who are unemployable. They hit the workplace and are caught out by its rules and protocols – everything from dress codes to the need for punctuality."
When you consider that teaching staff – regardless of what they teach – will have to reach Level 2 in maths and English as well as IT, this may lead to even more anxiety. "But one thing that further education is very good at is teaching these kinds of subjects at these kinds of levels to people who do not have a straightforward educational history," says Mercer. There are other sticking points on a more strategic level. "The qualification that further education teaching staff will get is not transferable. So whereas someone qualified as a schoolteacher can move into the college sector, this isn't possible the other way round. That is a bone of contention."
There is also a need for communication to be improved about exactly what level of qualification each member of teaching staff requires. "It's still a bit complex about which stage you need to reach, so there needs some work here."
There may be an issue with funding, too. "Every person who does the training is eligible for a grant. But in order to raise the large sums required, it could be that the Government need to phase out the golden hellos currently on offer for teaching certain subjects like construction and engineering. But in order to meet the regulations and government targets for teacher training, we need stability of funding. You cannot have one without the other."
One of the most positive things about the new qualification is that it demonstrates how colleges are not just a second chance for many students, but for teachers too. "To get someone who left school at 16, who has worked as a bricklayer, able to qualify as a teacher and gain a Level 4 qualification – the level of a degree – is fantastic. As a sector, we are very proud of that. We are also proud of the fact that many of our teaching staff are already qualified. All we are saying is that there are some issues that need addressing in ensuring we get the professionalisation agenda right."