Old Hat? Teaching qualifications are so yesterday.

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COMMENT – It’s been a quiet couple of weeks for the education satirist.  What with the Olympics and the wonderful stories emerging of chaos and calamity, I’ve felt quite bitter and resentful that I’m largely confined to ranting about schools, the DfE and Ofsted, because there have been rich pickings for the general columnists.  For example, between the G4S debacle, Jeremy Hunt nearly having some woman’s eye out with his handbell and Mitt Romney’s breathtakingly poor diplomacy, I’d have been able to generate enough column inches to keep my dog in Snappysnacks (they smell of cat poo – what’s not to like for a dog?) for the rest of the year.  Mind you, I’m so looking forward to hearing what Romney says as soon as he touches down elsewhere during his tour ofEurope– will he perhaps tell the French their cuisine is horrible, or offer the observation thatGermanyis mucky?  You can see how a lack of decent nonsense spewing from the mouths of the high-ups in education reduces me to idle speculation.

It was with great joy, therefore, that I heard Michael ‘Treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen’ Wilshaw – Ofsted Lord High Executioner – tell his Newsnight interlocutor on 25th July that “one in five pupils” who leaves primary school is achieving “below average” standards in English. The lovely Michael offered this statistic by way of evidence to support the assertion that we need to improve the teaching of maths. What he didn’t mention, but I shall suggest at this point, is that his statement appears to prove that on average four out of five education bigwigs have no understanding of basic maths.  Oh, to have a time machine and be able to go back to just before the programme in order to whisper into the interviewer’s ear, ‘Ask him what an average is and how it is calculated’.

We’ve had this mangling and misuse of statistics, almost always in conjunction with the Key Stage 2 national curriculum tests before, haven’t we?  People stake their jobs on the achievement of some benchmark, which they’ve generally plucked entirely out of the air as it flew past like an off-course budget airliner.  There was Estelle Morris, who famously self-immolated after a promise regarding national curriculum test targets – though to be perfectly fair, she didn’t actually keep her promise, which proves that despite her great popularity amongst teachers, she was always a politician.  Then there was Chris ‘Nobody likes me, I don’t care’ Woodhead, who claimed in 1995 that there were 15000 ‘incompetent’ teachers, a claim for which he had no actual evidence whatsoever, despite being extremely keen on evidence-based inspection.  So pernicious was this claim, however, that it re-surfaced fifteen years later in a documentary on Panorama which might well turn up again one day on one of those ‘vote for your favourite thingy’ programmes they so enjoy doing on Channel 4, probably entitled ‘The fifty worst programmes ever made’.  If they narrowed the premise down to factual programmes, it would probably come first.

I must tell you, however, that having declared it a time of famine as regards education news, I was pootling along quite nicely on this topic of statistical mangling and making-up when up popped a staggering bit of news, cunningly kept back until schools had broken up and hidden behind the opening of the Olympic Games.  In fact, it was my friend Jonathan who lives in Spain – I think it was the woman who runs the local bodega who told him and apparently she heard it from the bloke down the wicker donkey factory – who alerted me to the announcement that academies are to be allowed to appoint anybody they like to teach children, even Ofsted inspectors who haven’t got a teaching qualification. Those cynics who claimed that the DfE had not only waited until 3.30pm on the opening day of our Olympics to release this shocking bit of new, but had actually released it on Twitter, need me to put them straight.  It’s perfectly obvious that the news had been taken down the shops to buy some sweets by a junior DfE wonk, saw its chance to escape and legged it off down to Heathrow, where it sneaked past all security checks and hopped on a budget flight toAlicante, hoping to catch some rays in Benidorm.  During the flight, it sat next to a pair of exhausted secondary teachers, engaged them in conversation and the game was up.

I can hear everyone’s reaction to this news, however. ‘Who could have predicted this?’ you’re all saying.  Certainly, Michael ‘All teachers are rubbish and deserve no pay, apart from the ones in academies and free schools’ Gove gave us no hint of this when he declared his intention to raise the quality of teachers by insisting on at least a second class honours degree for entrants to teacher training.  He made us believe completely in his determination to offer a better class of teacher to the nation’s children when he set out how he intended to improve teacher training by making it more school-based, in order to prevent the continuing indoctrination of teachers by all the Trotskyites who have cunningly found jobs as PGCE tutors.  I think it must be a lost pamphlet by Trotsky which ended with this stirring call to arms: ‘First the sand tray, next the wet play area – then the world!’ I know I’ve yet to see the banner proclaiming ‘Teachers of England unite – you have nothing to lose but your own mug in the staffroom (which someone’s probably got stashed in their locker already)’

Hastening to find the evidence (all right, Googling for it), there it was on the Guardian website, headed ‘Unqualified teachers for academies’.  It seems to me to be an utterly bizarre state of affairs when the secretary of state for education claims to be in the business of improving the quality of entrants to teaching, whilst at one and the same time removing the need for any sort of training whatsoever in an increasing number of state schools.  Given his other aim – to make as many schools as possible convert to academy status – one wonders why he’s bothering even to think about teacher training at all.

I knew I couldn’t trust the Guardian to give me the material I needed, however, so I was off to the Telegraph before you could say ‘privatisation’.  And there it was – first of all, the spokesman from the DfE telling us “Independent schools and Free Schools can already hire brilliant people who have not got QTS.”  As we’re all painfully aware of the queues of brilliant folk clamouring to be allowed to teach in our urban schools, you could see his point; and when he went on to say that the DfE was “extending this flexibility to all academies so more schools can hire great linguists, computer scientists, engineers and other specialists who have not worked in state schools before” I found myself wondering why any country has ever bothered training people to teach at all.  After all – how hard can it be?  The Spectator even extended this bit of maniacal brainstorming to suggest that James Dyson himself couldn’t have been hired as a teacher unless he’d spent a year at teacher training college.  I must admit, when I was a headteacher I often wished, sadly, that we could hire as teachers people who knew about vacuum cleaners, rather than the graduates in relevant disciplines who had bothered to get themselves trained to teach 11-18 year olds.

I’ll end with a statement by Christine Blower of the NUT.  I don’t think it needs any further comment:  “Our 2011 ComRes poll showed that 89% of parents want a qualified teacher to teach their child, with just 1% comfortable about those without Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) taking charge of a class.  By his own admission, Michael Gove is relaxed about profit-making from schools.”

All right, you knew I could not stop myself.  Would all the teachers who voted Conservative on the grounds that ‘We’re fed up with all the changes Labour keep making’ please form an orderly queue outside my house, because the slapping you’re going to get is nothing less than you all deserve.

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Helen Freeborn

Helen Freeborn was a secondary headteacher for 11 years until she gave it all up to live in Greece. Now returned after four years abroad, she divides her time between consultancy, training, a range of writing projects and catching up with all the television she has missed.

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