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The Thatcher Legacy and How We Learned to Hate Teachers

It is often assumed that the teaching profession never liked Margaret Thatcher because she took away free school milk for the over-sevens in her first ministerial office in Ted Heath’s government in 1970. Sadly, if that was all she did, she might be looked back on with more fondness. It is also possible to overlook the influence on education which she wielded because many of her chickens only came home to roost in the subsequent Tory government. So, without organising street parties or joining in with some of the hagiography of the moment, why and how did Margaret Thatcher exert such a malign influence on education?

To understand this it is worth looking back to 1964 when comprehensive education was an election issue and the school leaving age for some children was still 14 years. The education system generally was in poor shape, represented in the public eye by well-established and privileged grammar schools for between 10% and 20% of the local population while the other 80%, a large and largely invisible majority, were contained in secondary education, the quality of which was neither monitored nor controlled. There were some very good schools and some very bad ones. The election debate in 1964 was essentially about whether all children were likely to benefit from education and that is worth remembering because the subtext that some children are not predisposed to learn is still with us in the United Kingdom in contrast to most of our major educational competitors.

In office for the first time, Margaret Thatcher was engaged in a cost-cutting exercise but, at the same time, she supported the principles of selection and her friends in the grammar schools while many of the local authorities were moving towards comprehensive schooling. By and large, she did not challenge local authority decisions but neither did she allow the move towards the new schools to achieve critical mass. She did, however, make the decision on school milk which achieved a greater significance than it probably deserved. It is quite possible in historical terms that the real significance of this spat was that she developed a genuine distaste for teachers and their unions.

As leader of the opposition, and then Prime Minister until 1990 and, while working through a number of her protégés as education secretaries, she certainly took her revenge on the educational profession. She invented the notion of falling standards and the implicit argument that comprehensive schools were somehow to blame and used Sir Keith Joseph to develop the argument. She protected the grammar schools, eventually ring fencing them from any threat to their status.

What she also did, perhaps more subtly, was to subvert the teaching profession. Everyone remembers from that period in the early 1980s how teachers were portrayed as outdated revolutionaries locked into Marxist ideologies engaging in class war in schools and disseminating dangerously radical ideas. Of course, the unions didn’t help and the right-wing press – whose support for her is now more clearly understood – weighed in with caricatures and scare stories.

That also allowed her to begin to appropriate the curriculum. The 1944 Education Act said a lot about the structure of education but almost nothing about the curriculum but, throughout the 1980s, the well-intentioned notion to introduce a fairer curriculum with opportunities for all and with new status for vocational subjects which James Callaghan had floated got tied into being seen as the only way to secure standards and to contain the left-wing ideologues. Kenneth Baker, as Education Secretary, was not known as ‘Thatcher’s poodle’ for nothing and she pushed him into supporting external assessment as opposed to teacher assessment, and towards pencil and paper tests in the development of the 1988 Education Act. It is often overlooked how much conflict there was at this time, with the profession constantly seeking to limit the damage caused by government. There were arguments over Standard English, coursework as well as assessment and Thatcher was ruthless in seeking to win them.

So, when it looked as if the educationalists might hold sway in the new education agencies she moved in David Pascall, a BP executive, and an unknown called Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach to do her dirty work and to head up, respectively, the new National Curriculum Council and the school assessment agency, SCAA. Pascall was a loyalist and policy implementer while Lord Griffiths, was something of a Thatcher confidant, reported to be notorious for using the back entrance at Downing Street. Make of that what you will!

One of her other achievements at this time was to set up a coterie of right-wing academics and dodgy institutes to peddle the government agenda. The Centre for Political Studies often seemed to be the place where policy decisions were taken rather than the Department. A young maverick English teacher called Chris Woodhead was rising effortlessly through the system on the back of the organisation’s patronage which extended to include the Prince of Wales.

Thatcher won the fight since she held all the cards but, a little further along the line, while she was clearly in the ascendancy over education, everything came unstuck over Europe and testosterone rushes in the Cabinet and she was ousted in 1990. She left behind a clear stamp on education and mapped out a system which included retained grammar schools and a privileged independent sector, a legally stipulated curriculum, school inspection and external testing.

Subsequent governments have not managed to come to terms with this legacy because of her success in popularising the agenda. John Major and Tony Blair ran with it and Daily Mail and Telegraph readers are still quite clear in their heads that teachers cannot be trusted and need to be kept in line while they remain sure that standards continue to be eroded by crazy lefties although, as a country, we fall further and further behind in terms of world competitiveness. And. although none of them have been inside a school in living memory, these readers have helped to make sure that we still have a Thatcherite Chief Inspector (he would appreciate the label) who remains happy to blame schools and teachers rather than the system which Margaret Thatcher had such a hand in creating.



Lies, Damn Lies and GCSE Grade boundaries

Some people think that in the Parliamentary Select Committee’s discussions of the GCSE grading fiasco, Glenys Stacey from Ofqual got a relatively easy ride. She was allowed to look like a regulator who was regulating, and taking some firm and uncomfortable decisions to bring the inefficient examination boards into line. Yes, she would have forced some boards to comply because the evidence backed the Ofqual analysis up and that was her responsibility. The committee didn’t challenge her evidence then but, perhaps, they wish now that they had – given some of the other information which has leaked into the public domain.

They didn’t because they were blinded with science and statistics. The means of ensuring that examination outcomes are allegedly accurate across a range of boards, and across a varied and shifting population of candidates have become increasingly complicated. There is a world industry in statistical comparability and a degree of competition in suggesting that one way of making comparative judgements is better than another. There is also an understanding that no method is perfect and that it is as important to understand the range and influence of potential error as it is to get an assessment in the right place.

Of course, the effect of complex statistical analysis is also to mystify the whole process. Arguably, the achievement of transparency might be more important. Whatever one thinks about that, one of the things which clearly happened in 2012 was that the statistics took over.

This has not always been the case. When I first started examining English in the early 1970s under the old GCE framework which Michael Gove would rather like to hearken back to, I went as a raw assistant marker to a meeting at the Oxford Delegacy chaired by Colin Dexter at a time when Inspector Morse was no more than an idea in the back of his head.

The marking process was straightforward. Work through two pieces of continuous writing and correct every error by ringing the spellings, underlining grammatical inaccuracy and putting a wavy underline beneath any inappropriate phraseology. The selective use of marginal ticks was also encouraged. Having done that, you made a holistic judgement about quality. Colin Dexter, not known for a lack of confidence, reticence or modesty about his talents, then told the audience in no uncertain terms what the script was worth. His criteria were not exactly apparent but they did seem to involve separating sheep from goats, common oiks from the literati, rejoicing over the occasional use of the semi-colon, and luxuriating in classical references so that if Phoebus and his golden orb made an appearance that was a definite tick. The intention to norm reference was as clear as was the attention to where the school was located and the kind of chaps it attracted. I suspect that if you were called Cholmondeley it helped as well!

While it would be perfectly reasonable to question an English assessment rooted in the prejudices of Inspector Morse (and he certainly had plenty) what you did get from this meeting was a clear benchmark. As you went on to complete your marking, you could tell relatively quickly – as you slavishly identified the errors – whether this was going to be a pass or fail and you could do this well before Phoebus bade his farewell.

Since then, the importance of the judgement in examinations has been gradually eroded. Examiners are asked to make decisions in terms of marks (the notion of grades is studiously avoided) as they go along and it is considered to be a good thing that grade awarding is kept separate. In a multi-component assessment like modular English, each component is only graded at the end of the marking process to decide what specific mark is actually worth a Grade C or Grade D, or worth a Grade A or Grade B.

This is a committee job informed by a statistician who already has a clear understanding of what the outcomes should be. New members of these committees frequently complain at the limitations of the samples they are presented with and the way in which the judgement is downplayed. Examination board officers would quickly point out in reply that these people do not see enough evidence to do more than confirm the statistics because, unlike in the case of Colin Dexter, the judgement has been separated from the assessment.

In 2012, the committees and the statisticians didn’t know what they were weighing and the reason is that they did not have proper benchmarks. A benchmark in these terms is the judgmental standard which constitutes a reasonable expectation of performance. Also, if you know how a similar cohort (in terms of socio-economic status and prior performance) scored last year then you have an expectation of how this year’s cohort ought to do. If they do better, standards are rising and if they do worse the Daily Mail will be happy. That is statistical benchmarking and, although given lots of fancy names, both forms of benchmarking remain at the heart of comparative assessment.

In 2012, there was a further complication in the introduction of controlled assessment, the marking of which was underpinned or overwhelmed (choose your word) by a mass of criterial detail and exemplification referring to a mixture of content, quality, accuracy and appropriateness in relation to set tasks. Different examination boards had different expectations of controlled assessment and different mark schemes. Teachers were given reams of guidance in how to approach it and assess it but no one had a genuine benchmark.

Prior performance measures in 2012 could have provided this and were desperately needed because this was a new specification but they weren’t available. Mass testing at key stage 3 was, despite all of its intrinsic faults, actually quite an accurate predictor of GCSE performance but that had gone for this cohort so, almost absurdly in terms of any commonsense view, Ofqual and the boards used key stage 2 data – five years old, rubbished by headteachers and latterly discredited, to create an expectation of performance.

Because it isn’t unknown for this kind of data to be unreliable, the statisticians have other tricks up their sleeves. One of their favourites is to compare performance in a particular component with the overall performance achieved in every other component when those are aggregated together and this one is excluded. The argument is that the performance should not be the same (because otherwise it would be obvious you were simply testing the same thing twice) but it should also not be too different. If it is, the judicious application of your statistical sledgehammer can knock it into shape.

Another trick is to compare the outcomes for the subject with the outcomes for a number of other subjects offered by the board. This works on the broad assumption that if the number of candidates is large enough there will be enough overlap to let you see if performance in one subject is out of line with performances overall. Clearly, this was a factor in Ofqual’s advice to specific examination boards in 2012.

Something else you can do is to create a legacy group. In this case, you might identify a group of students who were taking the examination and also had key stage 2 scores. The prediction should be that whichever examination board they sat their GCSE with the outcomes should be similar. You don’t have to say what they will be but you can say that if this standardised group does better with Edexcel than with OCR that the two boards are not working to the same standard.

The problem for Ofqual in 2012 was that it had neither reliable judgements nor reliable statistics. When it instructed individual boards to move their grade boundaries it was simply on the basis of the year on year figures. Worse still, the regulator does not appear to have been left with a benchmark if, as is generally recognised, the June standard was shifted to compensate for generosity in January.

The question that leaves us with is where should the benchmark be drawn for 2013 and for the forthcoming resit opportunity which has been offered to candidates free of charge? Statistically, because this is a one-off, it will be even harder to make sense of the outcomes and it will not be possible to carry them forward. If the severity of June is carried forward, candidates will do no better in October and standards will appear to decline once again in 2013. If it is not carried forward, that begs the question of what will be.

This is a significant issue which is bound to emerge at the judicial review. It is also possible that the assertion that only 1.5% fewer candidates achieved a grade C or better in English in 2012 might be challenged. Anecdotally, it looks to be closer to a minimum of 5%.

The problem now for Glenys Stacey is that being firm is not enough. What she really needs is Colin Dexter and the kind of evidence would convince Inspector Morse. When she met the Select Committee back in February she established her capacity to be firm with people on the basis that she had closed a footpath during a Foot and Mouth epidemic so that it was easier for a group of marksmen to shoot some wild cattle. She thought that the presence of journalists and photographers might put the guns off their gory task.

Glenys Stacey hasn’t shot anybody this autumn – yet!

The Rigours of GCSE and the EBC

jim Sweetman @jimbo9848

We are living with a coalition which is dedicated to rigour. Things will only get better if we are rigorous about controlling immigration or about getting people off benefit and back to work and so it is no surprise that we have to be rigorous in education. This week it is the GCSE examination which needs a rigorous shake out.  We are told that it has become increasingly flabby with module choices, coursework options and opportunities to resit whenever you like all confusing the outcomes. Coincidentally, or some might say in a rather more contrived fashion, the same GCSE has been in trouble in the last few weeks both for having declining standards and grade creep and also for trying rather clumsily to avoid them so that makes this review even more opportune.

In the emerging debate, everyone is of course an expert because they once sat an examination. It is a bit of a generalisation but the people who were crammed best to pass those examinations now seem to be sitting in the places where they can pass judgement on them. In fact, there are lots of experts who don’t seem to have had school-age children for quite some, let alone to have been inside a school within the last umpteen years but we have to live with that. There is probably also a large silent majority who hated school, messed up their examinations, ruined their life chances and who don’t expect anything ever to be any different.

So, now we have a review which is intending to put an end to grade creep by making this examination more rigorous. That means it is a terminal examination taken in one lump. It will have more demanding questions and be marked more severely. The best candidates – fewer of them – will be allowed to rise to the surface and given gold stars. It will be nationally set by one examination board so that there is no race to the bottom in terms of matching papers to specifications. Everyone will be allowed to sit it and be rewarded according to their capabilities.

Well that certainly smacks of rigour but it might be worth thinking about why we got GCSE in the first place and why a Conservative government introduced it. One reason was to extend the range of certifications so that more people got them. Although almost everyone takes GCSE now, around 25% of pupils nationally leave education at 16 without any discernible educational qualification or bit of paper to take with them saying what they can do or what they know and understand. If you want to reduce the benefits bill and the number of NEETs (young people not in education or training and receiving benefit) it would be a good thing not to make this group any larger and taking away the GCSE foundation tier which gives them access to education might not be a good thing.

And, then, if we are going to have a common examination for everyone, let’s ask some of these politicians to write the questions bearing in mind that they also want to crank up the standards and the expectations, and they think extended writing is a good thing. Trying to set a question in any subject that has a clear answer, differentiates across the full range of ability, can be accurately marked reasonably quickly and shows no evidence of cultural bias is pretty difficult. Trying to set a lot of them each year is even more difficult. And then, trying to set similar ones year on year at the same standard is even more difficult again. Common assessments can work quite well but common examinations with restrictions of time and resources are very hard to do well.

We have a recent model for the kind of calamitous failures which can result in thirty years of national testing. After a huge investment, frequently changed design teams and models, expensive pretesting, examination papers and mark schemes written by huge committees and the rest, most of this edifice at key stages one, two and three has now fallen apart leaving a sort of clutter of debris behind it but surprisingly little useful statistical information or learning.

What else is wrong with single session terminal examinations – apart that is from candidate illness, teacher illness, the variations in class size and teacher understandings of what is required, hay fever in June, erratic or incompetent markers, uncomfortable hot weather conditions, periods, dyslexia, physical disabilities which affect how fast you can work, family crises and bereavement, poor handwriting and test overload? It is sometimes not so hard to understand why people might have thought that a component structure with different kinds of assessment, taken at different times of the year and marked by different people could ever be an improvement or add to the reliability of the system.

Improvement is of course a difficult concept. If people aren’t going to improve and schools aren’t going to improve people’s life chances by, dare one whisper it, raising standards then we might really ask what the whole educational endeavour is all about. In essence, one Daily Mail reader’s spluttering into his or her boiled egg about grade creep reduces to another young person doing better at school than his or her parents did and that is actually what all political parties want. It is complicated as well because schools are judged on how far they improve and raise their standards. If they are bog standard comprehensives we call this grade creep but that is a bit more difficult if they are our new prestigious academies which, as a coalition, we have funded.

We might also think about what we want GCSE or this new O Level to actually do for us. In a world of lifelong learning and training where people are going to have more than one job in more than one area of work it might be useful to have a matriculation standard which says you have got your basic common shared learning up a certain point where you can begin to – and where you are equipped to – specialise and choose alternative pathways. In other words, you have achieved the basic
knowledge, skills and understandings which are a precondition of future study. The trouble is that most advanced economies like to specialise in this way a little bit earlier than we do and probably at 14 years of age rather than 16 to 18 so they will still be ahead of us. Also, in thinking about it, we seem to have confused the idea of a matriculation standard with a gateway which shuts down the options for some and turns them away while letting others through. Instinctively, knowledge elites tend to work to protect themselves in this way.

The other thing about all this radical change for the future or a demented retreat to the past depending on your point of view is that it is quite unlikely to happen. The start date of 2015 is after the next election when there is a good chance that the Liberal Democrats will have changed sides and be espousing vocational qualifications, coursework and portfolio assessment. Then, we will end up with another two headed camel, bloated, not fit for purpose and managing, once again, not to serve the best interests of young people and learning.

The Thatcher Memoirs (Unredacted)

It had been a busy week and Dennis and I were looking forward to a restful weekend at Chequers when I got the call on Saturday afternoon from Bernard to say there had been some trouble with Liverpool fans at a football match in Sheffield. He was up at home in South Yorkshire and was going to check things out. Dennis put the television on and called me into watch and we could see it was not going to be good and, quite quickly, Bernard called again to say we were going to need to put out a statement.

He had been talking to some of his friends in South Yorkshire Police who he knew from local Freemasons dinners and events and things were looking bad for them. He said we should go up to South Yorkshire the following day to make sure that we looked concerned, busy and involved. He agreed to contact Douglas as well.

I was quite worried. We owed a big thank you to the South Yorkshire force after all they did to help us way back during the Miners’ strike and I remembered how the Freemasonry link allowed us to have communications with them outside some of those irritating official channels. We knew they were on our side. We could hardly say the same thing about Liverpool where the Council was a constant irritation.

On the Sunday morning, we headed up to Sheffield. Dennis reminded me to put on my sombre face and imagine the fans came from Bromley! Poker-faced Douglas was always helpful on these occasions as he could talk for some while without saying anything.

Before going to the stadium, we had a quick briefing from a chap called Bettison from South Yorkshire police and a couple of others. Bernard had got hold of him and also a local MP called Irvine Patnick. This was always going to be a confidential discussion because everyone in the room was a Freemason and to be trusted. We had to do what we could to protect our friends in South Yorkshire who knew that they were in trouble. Bernard and the MP talked about what we could say. ‘It’s all right’, I said ‘as long as we all hold our nerve and stick to the story.’ As Dennis had said with his customary chuckle, our people would believe it if we said that people in Liverpool ate babies.

Afterwards we went to the ground and did the usual sympathetic face. I made sure we talked up the work of the emergency services and the police blah, blah, working without the help of angry drunken fans (neatly implied but not stated). We left Irvine Patnick to start working on the news story and Bernard called Kelvin down in Wapping (because he owed us favours to tell him what the line was). We left Patrick to make the regretful statement and waffle about all the things we might do and deepest sympathy etc.

It wasn’t quite the weekend I’d expected and we went back to Downing Street where over a welcome gin and tonic we saw the hints about the bad behaviour and drunkenness of the fans beginning to emerge in the evening’s late news bulletin.

We now had a real opportunity to come down hard on violence in football and encourage the judges to hand out some major sentences for working class aggravation as well as a handy stick to hit Liverpool with. We had given some payback to the South Yorkshire police and patted Kelvin the poodle. Not a bad weekend really!


PS This is not really an unredacted version of Mrs Thatcher’s Memoirs and is, of course, entirely fanciful.

Fans, Shit and GCSE English

If you wanted to abolish GCSE examinations or to move towards a system where GCSE syllabuses were set nationally you would probably be smiling today. As a result of some heavy steers, some clumsy strategic changes in direction and the inability of statisticians to understand the consequences of where they are headed there have been some radical grade changes in this week’s outcomes for GCSE English. Specifically, a tranche of results which would previously have earned a grade C are now getting a grade D.

This doesn’t seem to be across the piste but anyone relying on AQA English Language for their critical English grading is likely to be in trouble with 70% of the candidates not making a C grade. Elsewhere, people are complaining about OCR so it is likely to be a national problem. The flagship academies run by ARK have all seen their English results decline so no favouritism there!

Of course, the idea was that the stories in 2012 would all be about how grade creep had been abolished by the timely intervention of the regulator OFQUAL and gentle tightening of the screws by the examination boards in response. To be fair, the overall figures, with a drop of less than half of one percent in the overall A-C rate, would suggest this strategy was working but it has clearly been achieved at the cost of some greater drops in English and, possibly, some bigger year-on-year changes in specific syllabuses.

Apart from the concern that what are supposed to be objective criteria and standards preserved and safeguarded by the examination boards can be tweaked by them to suit the political climate these results are going to have some unexpected consequences.

First of all, if your school’s specification is one of those which is taking the biggest hit the trouble isn’t limited to the English faculty or department. A reduction in grades for English leads to a reduction in the key measure of A-C grades. This is almost the only measure of school improvement which OFSTED has any respect for, so we are now faced with the apparent fact that a large number of schools which were improving last term are going down the pan this autumn.

Having results which are, technically, on the slide and worse than last year’s is going to affect your value added calculation as well and, in the medium term, your OFSTED grading which, in turn, could trigger more inspections.

It puts a lot of other things at risk as well. The current government strategy for school improvement is based on hubs of excellence known as Teaching School Alliances. These are at risk if the schools at the centre are not seem to be improving. The headteachers of these schools are commonly designated as National Leaders of Education and are at the centre of the school-to-school support initiatives pioneered by the coalition. The schools are often known as National Support Schools precisely because they provide support to schools which are in trouble with their results. Their credibility to do this is likely to be shot to pieces if they are seen to be getting worse in terms of outcomes.

It is also bad news for the new academies which like to see – and can often identify – a post-launch bonus in their results. Persuading parents and governors to go down this road, leaving the local authority and stepping out on your own is a big decision. A lot of perfectly competent headteachers running efficient and effective schools will not be sleeping comfortably in their beds tonight. It is worth noting that these are not the comfortable, coasting schools which critics like to go on about but they are the ones which have been hauling themselves up progressively by their bootstraps over a number of years and now find themselves swinging by the rope.

Fundamentally, our education system is predicated on the maintenance of standards coupled with a slow overall improvement – something which the massive investment in education is quite entitled to expect as a return.

Tinker around with the grades and the systems which measure that improvement in order to satisfy elderly critics who have very little idea of what schools do (the parents of school-age children very rarely consider GCSE examinations to be too easy) and you risk the entire support strategy and school improvement strategy which you have invested in for several years.

Mess around with standards to respond to political pressure and things get even worse. You prejudice the assessment system and lose public respect as well as failing to meet the expectations of society.

You’re only left feeling smug about all this if you would like to see a big shake-up in the examination system, fewer examination boards, national syllabuses, and more schools forced into joining chains and becoming academies. Who could possibly want that to happen?

Enjoying the Olympics

Like a lot of people, I enjoyed watching the Olympics much more than I expected to. I liked the opening ceremony which was an artistic and aesthetic vision neatly articulated and I enjoyed all sorts of events. I watched them on television in HD, on two computers using the BBC feed and an an iPad using the Eurosport Player. The quality of the pictures and the slow motion was outstanding but there was something else I really liked which I have only just put my finger on.

Everything I watched was live and unmediated sometimes with the live commentary and sometimes with no commentary at all. Throughout the whole of the Olympics, I managed to avoid Clare Balding, Gary Lineker, that awful smug man from Radio 2 and the rest of them. That also meant I didn’t have to watch repeated highlights constantly and, although it is hard to believe, they were trying to broadcast them while live events were taking place. I also missed those ghastly little compilations of video clips of people sobbing or doing funny things as well as any number of patronising vox pop interviews and soundbites. The other thing I got away from was the Blue Peter style of reportage telling me what archery or judo was with some prepackaged video of the event in 1980 and some old fart rattling on about what it was like then. And, how many times do you think they wandered through the crowd on Weymouth beach trying to pretend they got a fantastic view and interviewing the biggest dorks they could find?

Instead, I got live-action which was exciting enough to stand alone and perfectly easy to follow through some excellent graphics. I also had the facility to switch from one event to another and to choose what to watch. It all made for a rewarding viewing experience thanks to digital TV and the red button.

So, hopefully, this is part of a continuing cultural shift in how we use media. It makes perfect sense to drop into live events as they happen without bloody Huw Edwards stating the totally obvious or trying to wind up some notional level of enthusiasm and involvement. If we did it more often, we could save money on the cost of these people – I’m sure that the provision of a live TV running channel is a lot less than it costs to keep some of these people in luxury.

And, why stop at sport? Like a lot of people I prefer a variety of news sources and I wouldn’t mind a newsfeed which simply took the reports of journalist from the heart of the action and let us make up our minds about what was going on.

There has been some other comment about the bizarre tendency of some commentators to handle and grope successful athletes in that patronising way which packages them for the camera as well as about their emotional outbursts but my hope is that this is the beginning of the end.

As we move into the next step of the digital era, we won’t need these people. We can take our news and sport from live feeds straight from the events and if we really want to know what the rules are we can open another tab and look them up on Wikipedia! I’m looking forward to that and hope that ‘auntie’ television has suffered a mortal blow -now that would be a beneficial legacy from London 2012.

© Jim Sweetman, @jimbo9848


I originally thought that Michael Gove’s announcement about academies being able to recruit anybody as teachers was simply a distraction for September so that people didn’t take too much notice of how many free schools are going to be undersubscribed! However, today it looks as if, by accident or design, the requirement to have Qualified Teacher Status in order to teach in any school could be going the same way.


The reaction has been mostly predictable. Anthony Seldon, the outspoken headteacher of Wellington College has been quick to tell us how liberating it will be to be able to employ good chaps without having to worry about all that qualifications business. The unions have gone into ballistic indignation mode and the higher education institutions, whose core business is clearly threatened by this move, have been expertly defended by Chris Husbands from the Institute of Education. Meanwhile, headteachers have been slower than one might expect to rubbish the idea and most classroom teachers probably just see this as another eccentric Gove initiative. Perhaps the school system has been beaten down so effectively over the past eighteen months that the fight has gone out of it.


The first thing to say about the plan is that it is ideological rather than practical. It fits neatly with the Gove assertion that teaching should operate on an apprenticeship model where new teachers learn on the job. Since we have been saying for years that teachers are lifelong learners that is an easy assertion to make but, of course, it is hopelessly flawed.


Teaching requires a mixture of pedagogy (understanding the role, the clients, the context, the dynamic and so on) and subject knowledge (the expert voice, the curriculum content, examination system and the rest) and to be a good teacher you have to blend all of that with experience and personal qualities like resilience, determination and an ability to get on with people. You need all three of these and the ideological debate is all about the third one.


There is another, quite separate, argument to be had about whether QTS, an honours degree or even a Masters qualification is the best preparation for teaching but all of them do give you a chance to reflect, explore and learn. That is important because otherwise people simply teach like they were taught so that the bad habits of one generation get foisted on the next and new ideas and innovations do not get passed around and learned.


Also, even if they are viewed as a ragbag of requirements, these qualifications do require teachers to be reasonably literate and numerate and to study the area in which they going to teach. Does anyone think that parents will be stupid enough not to complain about teachers, however charismatic they appear, who are only one step ahead of the class in learning?


The qualifications also provide a security blanket for schools. Trainees are security checked so if someone has a criminal record or is on a sex offenders database it should be known about. The same cannot be said about someone who arrives in the school with some convincing documentation from some faraway country and a couple of e-mail addresses for references.


Funnily enough, the requirements also protect schools from the maverick decisions of school governors who are more likely than most to be taken in by anyone who is over six foot tall in a sporty jacket with a slight military bearing and clean shoes! Because everybody went to school, most people think they know about teaching and how to do it. Quite a lot of them think they could do it rather well and an open open application process is going to bring them out of the woodwork.


So, in the end this notion is not going to appeal to many headteachers. The risks are not only that you get conned but that, if things go wrong, you are likely to get sued as well. Most academies arrange their liability insurance independently and once insurers begin to see the risks involved then premiums will rise. If the fancy new unqualified teacher fails to deliver adequate GCSE scores, there might be a good legal case to be made against the school for not acting in the interests of children.


The Secretary of State for Education may be many things but he’s certainly not stupid so what is he really up to? Well, as mentioned above, if you’re thinking of moving to a bigger job in September you wouldn’t want a free school places disaster to cloud your record but there’s more to it than that. The troops into teaching initiative, a massive increase in school-based training and an OFSTED regime designed to cut the numbers of education providers are all working together to destabilise teachers and teaching while regional pay and payment by results are only a little further down the line.


The end intention is a multiplicity of provision delivered by any number of people and through that the destruction of the maintained system with equity of access and equity of opportunity. The coalition has tried – and probably – failed to do that to the National Health Service but there’s still a chance with education and as things fall apart there is a lot of money to be made through private intervention. The ‘not’ not for profit educational trusts and foundations are waiting in the wings.