Monday, 18 January 2010

Those That Require Schooling

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.


Tomsk said...

To be fair to the Guardian it's a quote, not a charge. The Tories themselves are selling the plan as brazenly elitist.

I can see how academic achievement might be important in the sense that the more comfortable you are with a subject, the better equipped you are to answer students' questions about it. But above a certain threshold I agree it's insignificant compared to the level of your general teaching skills.

SpaceSquid said...

Oops. That's me being careless. I realised it was a quote, but I figured using it so many times implied they were consciously putting the boot in.

Having re-read the article, you're quite right, the quote comes from the Tories themselves, which makes hammering it home entirely reasonable.

I'd agree entirely that there are a narrow range of situations in which having a good degree is useful in terms of explaining various pieces of mathematics, most particularly the connections between topics. On the other hand, that can actually be a double-edged sword. Once you get to the point that you can see how the subject fits together, it can actually become harder to explain things to children, because you can't see things in isolation like they do.

An obvious example of this involves an argument I had when quite young about 1 not being a prime number. Having been told a prime can only be divided by 1 and itself, I suggested that 1 most certainly qualified, it was simply a technicality that 1 is itself in this case. Rather than tell me that I should think of a prime number as having exactly two factors, my teacher (presumably because of how well I tended to do in maths otherwise) told me about prime factorisation, and how if 1 was a prime number, then unique prime factorisations would no longer be possible.

That makes sense to me now. At the time, though, I couldn't see a single reason why I should care. 1 was either prime or it wasn't; I saw no earthly reason why "it helps elsewhere" should be considered a valid reason for excluding it from the list of primes.

Of course, for evidence that being too comfortable in one's subject makes people worse at answering questions, simply see pretty much 99% of all academics.

Chemie said...

Good point that the better qualified are more likely to leave the profession.

But shockingly (even to me) I do agree with the policy that primary school teachers should have higher than a C in GCSE (or equivalent) in English and Maths. I'm appalled they could be teachers with just a C.

Anonymous said...

But if you have a C at GCSE (especially back in the day when that was relatively less due to drilling and more due to understanding) then you can do everything a primary child needs to know and a lot more. And as long as you're at least two steps ahead of them, you've got no problem. I can explain all manner of basic Psychology issues to people even if it's stuff I barely touched on at degree level, because I understand it more than them, and just enough to get it right.

Similarly if you have a third in maths, and suck at hydrodynamics (all my engineering friends hated that!), that isn't going to impair your ability to teach 17 year olds to integrate.

I agree with R's main point: that solving the problems in teaching primarily requires taking action to improve teacher's stress levels, which would also require less neuroses about paperwork, less emphasis on league tables and more on trusting teachers to produce rounded students. Which Cameron will never suggest because it was his political grandmother who decided we couldn't trust teachers in the first place...

Chemie said...

I'm not worried about primary school teachers being a few steps ahead of primary school kids. I'm concerned that with barely a C in GCSE (or equivalent) English and Maths, a teacher can't properly understand learning and teaching methods. It might be better put that I don't think two Cs is enough to truly understand and pass a PGCE or similar training. I don't like to think that reports about learning or methods are being written or read in C level English or that methods are being evaluated with C level maths or science. If teachers are to teach modern languages properly to primary school teachers, they absolutely have to be *currently* above a GCSE C in that language.

As for the degree, I have rarely found that the best scientists make the best science teachers. Teaching is a skill a degree level doesn't indicate. However an above average level of basic education is very important in training and being the best teacher possible.