Sam Freedman: Good teachers are made in the classroom

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The Independent Online

The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. So says Tony Blair's one-time education adviser Michael Barber, and this is unquestionably true. Countries in which teaching is a high-status profession such as Finland or South Korea regularly top international league tables of pupil performance. In this country we have excellent teachers, but because other careers have higher status, not enough of our best graduates join the profession. Moreover, we remain poor at developing teachers and rewarding those who are successful.

So how can we change this picture? For a start, we need to accept that teaching need no longer be a career for life; that highly able people can add a huge amount to a school in just a few years. As the government-sponsored Teach First programme has shown, good people will be attracted by a short-term commitment that allows them to earn while learning on the job.

Pay is also hugely important. However, any realistic across-the-board pay rise would not be enough to make much difference. Instead, the best new recruits should be fast-tracked into high-paying leadership and advanced teacher positions. At the same time, schools in disadvantaged areas should be given extra funds so that they can compete for the best teachers.

Attempts to mould teaching into a traditional high-status profession such as medicine or law have not worked. It would be a huge mistake to continue down this path by extending the time spent in training. This would deter exactly the type of ambitious high-flyers we want to attract. Instead, we should promote the nobility of teaching; that giving something back while developing valuable communication and leadership skills is worth doing. This would be much easier if more trainees could be employed and earning from the start of their training.

Trainees find it hard to translate theory learnt in the university lecture hall into practical techniques for the classroom, yet more than three quarters of them spend at least a year in higher education before joining a school as a salaried staff member. On-the-job training, supported by funds currently diverted to higher education, would be far more valuable.

We would give all teachers a financial entitlement to spend on their own professional development, integrated with the performance review process and supported by a mentor. This would give teachers autonomy over their own development while allowing schools to guide this development through support and appraisal.

Taken together we believe these recommendations amount to a coherent and compelling vision for the teaching profession.

Sam Freedman is head of the education unit at Policy Exchange. This is an edited version of the conclusion to the Policy Exchange report More Good Teachers

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