I was amused today to see The Guardian refer to Cameron's proposed new teacher recruitment policy as "brazenly elitist" three separate times, once in the link, again in the headline, and again in the first sentence.
Obviously The Guardian isn't trying to hard to hide where it's loyalties lie (or at least where they most definitely do not lie), but in fairness they could have quite sensibly gone much further. The problem with Cameron's idea isn't that it's brazenly elitist (a charge which requires some thought in any case), it's that it's completely, utterly insane.
First of all, though, we need to consider whether or not this plan is elitist. I think we need to be careful about chucking the term around in situations where a body responsible for training people for a job tells those people that their access to that training will be conditional on their level of ability. Is it elitist that I received funding for my PhD having received a first, and a friend of mine who got a 2.2 was required to pay his way to becoming a doctor? Surely not. There's only so many research funding to go around, and it surely makes sense to aim it at those who are most likely to do well.
Where the comparison falls down, though (and this is something Watt would have done well to mention) is that the assumption that getting a first makes one a good researcher is a much stronger one than the assumption that getting a first makes one a good teacher. Nothing in my three years of educational experience ever gave me reason to believe those who were more academically gifted taught more effectively. Often it made a difference to how high they rose within the hierarchy of the school (indeed, certain positions now essentially require masters degrees in education), but that's not the issue. We are not suffering from a deficit of school leadership (well, God knows a lot of schools are, actually, but that's a very different kettle of monkeys), we're suffering from a deficit of good teachers.
In that sense, then, there is an inherent assumption inside this plan that those more academically gifted are also more gifted at passing that information on to others, and that is elitist, I think, in the sense that it suggests academic ability somehow naturally translates into aptitude for being placed in authority. If we could prove such a link exists, or find a more plausible way to measure one's innate talent for imparting knowledge, I don't think I'd have a problem with the idea that some people might not be able to receive funding for their teacher training based on that metric.
Actually, that's not entirely true. If we had a large enough pool of potential recruits, maybe. But the big problem with teaching that Cameron is never going to mention, because it would involve spending money instead of withholding it, is that the reason why in certain subjects we don't have enough good teachers is that we don't have enough teachers of any kind.
In a minimally sensible world, any policy suggestion aimed at weeding out poor teachers would be legally required to come coupled with a plan to immediately replace them with better ones. And yet somehow politicians are allowed to continue suggesting that in a profession that is severely undermanned, the best solution is to make getting into it harder. To reduce the pool. If there exists a teacher out there who is so bad as to be inferior to leaving twenty-five children alone in a room for an hour, I have yet to meet them. Or to hear about it, save for that tiny percentage who break the law in the worst ways possible, and again, show me some evidence that academic achievement and predilection for pederasty have anything other than a correlation of zero.
The one correlation that I do think probably exists in all of this is that those with the highest qualifications are more likely to leave teaching. Teaching, as I can attest to, has something of a high casualty rate. In my case, when I finally decided the school I was working at wasn't for me (and it was more the school than the profession that was bothering me, though the latter was certainly in there as well), I didn't have any problem securing an alternative source of income. This is not necessarily the case for someone less qualified. If I didn't think I'd have found it easy to change careers (or even if I'd been to a few interviews and gotten nowhere), I might well have simply chosen to change schools, instead.
It's by no means a perfect correlation, but it seems obvious that since those with higher classes of degree have more alternatives when considering employment, it will be easier for them to leave teaching, and that means that assuming dissatisfaction is equal across the board, the teaching profession must lose highly qualified teachers more often than less highly qualified ones.
As far as I can see, then, Cameron's response to a horribly under subscribed profession is to make subscription to it harder, and to increase the proportion of subscribers who are more likely to not stay for very long, all whilst arguing that the only reason people like me didn't stay in teaching is that I didn't feel like the job was worthy enough for my attention. As a slice of counter-productive insulting lunacy, it's quite impressive, but I'd be surprised if Cameron doesn't top this one pretty quickly.