Michael Gove was temporarily distracted from creating New Sweden this morning and spoke instead (on the Today programme) about education systems in Finland, South Korea and Singpore. Why? Because in those countries teaching is a "high prestige profession". Teachers in Finland, he explained, are chosen from the top 10 per cent of university graduates; in South Korea primary school teachers are chosen from the top 5 per cent of the population. The Conservatives now hope to make the teaching profession, in David Cameron's words, "brazenly elitist".
If elected the Tories will only allow those with a 2/2 degree or higher to become a teacher - a decision that was, it seems, based in part on the success of Teach First (for which applicants need at least a 2/1 degree to be accepted). As an alumnus of Teach First I was pleased to see Cameron describing it as "a fantastic programme" and pledging his support for its extension. However, what neither Gove nor Cameron mentioned in their respective media appearances was that although academic achievement is one element of the Teach First teacher selection criteria it is not the only (and, I would argue, definitely not the most important) reason for the success of Teach First's recruitment and selection process.
Teach First teachers are also required to demonstrate certain competencies, including resilience, leadership and planning and organising. A recent study from the US suggests that if the Tories are serious about improving teacher quality, politicians should be taking and interest in these character traits as well as academic achievement. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Amanda Ripley describes the results of a study to find out what separates the very top Teach For America (the US version of Teach First) teachers from their TFA colleagues. It shows that, beyond academic success, the very best teachers tend to demonstrate high levels of 'grit' and perseverance, are "constantly re-evaluating what they are doing", set big goals and can demonstrate "leadership achievement." They are people who are able to put their mind to something and achieve what they set out to do.
Malcolm Gladwell came to similar conclusions in a 2008 New Yorker article. He wrote, "Educational-reform efforts typically start with a push for higher standards for teachers—that is, for the academic and cognitive requirements for entering the profession to be as stiff as possible. But after you’ve....seen how complex the elements of effective teaching are, this emphasis on book smarts suddenly seems peculiar."
I am glad that Michel Gove thinks it should be “difficult to become a teacher” as I support the aspiration to make teaching a high status profession but the test of suitability should not simply be academic. If the Tories are to make sure that their policy is not “peculiar” but effective they need to attract gritty, not just brainy, people into teaching.