This post also appears on Labour Teachers.
1. a paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification:
his chosen profession of teaching
a barrister by profession
If the definition above, from the OED, is accepted, teaching has ceased to be a profession. Although Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) still exists and is available to those who complete a validated route into teaching (PGCE, GTP, TeachFirst), the Coalition government decided to dispense with the requirement that teachers in maintained schools possess QTS*. Many teachers, it is fair to say, were against this. The ending of the QTS was castigated by the teaching unions and by many individual teachers. Labour’s new Shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt, went on the offensive, launching a campaign saying Britain now had the lowest teacher eligibility requirements anywhere in the developed world; this was popular with teachers.
This is the context in which to read Hunt’s announcement of a re-validation process for teachers – as part of developing, not a further undermining of, teaching’s claim to professional status. Despite the headlines and despite the very negative reaction from many teachers (including a move by the NUT in the space of 24 hours from cautious acceptance to predictable hostility), three things should be clear from the combination of Hunt’s previous statements on the value of a qualified teacher workforce and the things Hunt has said in his media interviews about this particular policy:
1) This is a policy very much in embryo – teachers can and should engage to make it work.
Although it is similar to, it is not the same as the ‘license to teach’ slated for introduction by Labour prior to the 2010 general election**; nothing I have seen suggests that Labour has committed itself to any particular version of the re-validation process. In my next blog, I intend to offer a couple of suggestions for how the policy might be carried forward, but the most important point at this stage is that this is an offer from Hunt, not an instruction, and as teachers we should be prepared to engage with the huge potential of this idea. It is dispiriting to see teachers so keen to condemn a politician without, at least, asking for clarification or considering the bona fides of that politician. Hunt has been as strong a defender of QTS status as any teacher, so suggestions that he is just aping Michael Gove are way off – not least because, whatever else might be said about this policy, it is the precise opposite of Gove’s approach on this issue. Education is presently in flux – the politically savvy are moving to debate, shape and even create their own versions of the future, like ARK with its earnest inquiries into new assessment systems, or the RSA, with its academies commission, or those proposing a Royal College of Teaching – Labour is offering a chance to be part of that shaping process. Well-reasoned argument backed by evidence will find a hearing; angry denunciations of politicians for making perfectly reasonable demands of accountability will not.
2) The idea of the policy is a good one: it is not enough simply to return to the days of one-off QTS.
I found the whole debate around QTS quite dull and difficult to engage with, because at present QTS is meaningless: it isn’t remotely difficult to get and once achieved it is only taken away for extraordinary breaches of professional duty. When Labour proposed insisting that all teachers get QTS, it seemed a bit strange because, for me, getting QTS simply involved living to the end of my NQT year – most unqualified teachers will have taught for that long if not longer, so requiring them to do something else to match my QTS seemed arbitrary and possibly self-defeating. However, setting a higher bar for all teachers, and introducing a re-validation process that requires an ongoing engagement with pedagogy, subject knowledge and (for those needing it) specialist training in, say, special education needs (SEN) or management, is a boon for all teachers. The best parts of my PGCE were about a critical engagement with the literature of history education, but I could have achieved QTS without it – that should no longer be possible. It also shouldn’t be acceptable for teachers to stop engaging with that literature the moment QTS is achieved. For example, there is at present much excitement about the potential of Willingham’s and Hirsch’s work to make a real difference to students’ progress – whether this excitement is justified should be tested on the evidence, but it should certainly be a requirement that all teachers engage with the value of new developments; that Vygotsky still seems to rule as the last word on pedagogic theory is, frankly, barking.
Many will say that teachers don’t ignore the need to update their professional knowledge – they complete their own professional development, either via school-funded CPD or off their own backs. In response, I would say: a) many teachers do this, but the quality of CPD provided, both school-funded and personal, is incredibly variable – I discuss this further below; and b) some teachers aren’t doing this, or are doing it very badly, and it should be possible to remove them if that is the case. Capability procedures exist to do this, but they are unevenly applied to an extent that the actual standard of teaching that gets you sacked is almost arbitrary. Re-validation should ensure far greater standardisation in Teacher Standards, which at present can vary not just from school-to-school but department-to-department. That variability should end, and the rights of teachers at risk of failing re-validation should be clearer than at present.
3) This policy is not about bad teachers, but about better teachers.
It is inevitable that any system requiring full engagement from a group of people requires sanctions for those who do not engage – hence the need to de-validate those who do not maintain the required standards, although as I suggest above, teachers in such a position actually have a lot to gain from better standardisation and greater rights to training. But fundamentally, to focus on those teachers is to miss the point: there are many, many more competent teachers than there are failing ones, and this policy is about helping those teachers achieve an ambition held by all competent teachers–to be a better teacher.
At the moment, the quality of professional development available to teachers is, to put it mildly, variable. This is not a function of the level of qualification achieved by the CPD. Whilst all teachers can probably recall an epically awful one-day of external training relieved only by the quality of biscuits on offer, as a higher education academic (who shall remain nameless) pointed out to me at an event, “There’s no shortage of utterly pointless education Masters degrees out there”. As such, it isn’t just the variability that is a problem, but the lack of good quality information about what is good quality CPD. At the moment, aside from a desire not to be bored, there is little incentive on teachers to shop around for quality school-funded CPD and very little information which could help them shop around for self-funded university courses. With the introduction of re-validation, it will suddenly matter a great deal, and a confused deputy head booking some snake-oil salesman with a flash website but no insight is likely to be deluged with very real complaints. Moreover, re-validation will make the matter of CPD an issue of industrial relations: if getting bad INSET is likely to cost you your job, it is perfectly legitimate to involve your union, invoke a trades dispute and even go out on strike to get better professional development. The sight of teachers on the picket line demanding better training so they can teach better is far more likely to engage parental support than telling them about changes to a pension plan which no non-teacher could buy. Clearly the introduction of re-validation will need to take account of the availability of CPD, but it should also have the effect of improving it. But that isn’t all – done well, re-validation can become the prism through which many of the teaching profession’s greatest bug-bears are dealt with: workload can be reduced as low-impact, high-intensity policies are discarded in the face of an increasingly well-trained profession able to assert itself on the basis of evidence against unreasonable demands. Of course, it may turn out that some unpopular policies are actually proved to be highly effective, but a profession can hardly demand to be treated as such if it ignores the evidence. It won’t be easy, or quick, to build world-class professional development into England’s education system, but it is certainly worth the time and effort to do it.
The assumption should not be that re-validation is aimed at developing a “bad teachers” narrative. But it is evidently, and unashamedly, proclaiming that teaching and learning could be better – and this is obviously the case, and ambitious teachers agree with this. Labour is proclaiming that teachers should have both the right to high quality professional development and the responsibility to deploy what they have learned. Tristram Hunt is offering teachers a chance to shape and create a new model of professional development that meets their needs whilst also meeting the needs of their students. In my next blog, I want to suggest some ways forward, but I think it essential now to ask that those who have something to offer to this process do not walk away from it. There is great potential here – let’s seize it.
* Strictly speaking, this isn’t true: schools have long been able to employ teachers who did not hold QTS, but it was a requirement that such teachers enroll on a route which would result in QTS.
** About which, a few words: the BBC, among others, has suggested that license to teach was defeated by the teacher trade unions in a battle with the last Labour government. This is simply untrue: license to teach commanded significant support from within the profession, including the avowed backing of the NASUWT and the NAHT, and only failed to be introduced because the Tories wouldn’t vote for it in the Parliamentary “wash up” when (for slightly archaic reasons) the opposition suddenly holds the whip-hand over the government in the closing weeks before the end of a Parliamentary session.