Friday, 9 April 2010

Desmonds for teachers

With the election campaign now underway I will be posting every day or two to examine the specific pledges in the Conservative education manifesto and how they will (or not) change the educational landscape. First up teacher qualifications.....

"... graduates will need at least a 2:2 in their degree in order to qualify for state-funded training."

When David Cameron and Michael Gove announced that all teachers must have a 2:2 degree to become teachers, they said they want to make the teaching profession “brazenly elitist”. Inspired by countries with very high-performing education systems, such as Finland and South Korea, where teachers are taken from amongst the top graduates in the country, the Conservatives hope their policy will make teaching a high status, “noble profession”. Will it work?

The answer, in the short term at least, is no. According to the Training and Development Agency for Schools, only 2% of primary and 3% of secondary school teachers have 3rd class degrees, so the policy will not have a meaningful impact on the actual make-up of the profession. Even if people with 3rd class degrees are barred we will still be a very long way from drawing teachers from the top 10% (Finland) to 25% (South Korea) of graduates. In 2008/09, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, approximately 13% of (full time) students at UK universities were awarded a third class and ‘unclassified’ undergraduate degrees. I doubt that any new Tory government will be announcing proudly that, due to their education policy, teachers in the UK now come from the top 87% of graduates.

However, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Michael Gove recognised that by taking this step the Conservatives are just “embarking on a journey” to raise the prestige of the teaching profession; this is just the first stage of a long and very difficult process that will take “a generation”. The idea of the policy, it seems, is almost to launch a campaign, to let people know that the Tories mean business.

So what is the rest of the process by which teaching will become a high prestige profession? This is less clear than the first step. It does not, says Gove, involve raising teacher salaries (which is fortunate given the state of the economy) as the most important thing is not more money for teachers but more “respect”. He is right, respect is most important, but increasing salaries is one means of achieving respect. Although teachers’ salaries have improved since Labour came to power they remain significantly lower than those of, for example, GPs, who earned an average of around £110,000 a year, compared to around £34,000 for teachers. Pay is by no means everything but it does say a certain amount about the value society places on a profession.

The three suggestions outlined by Gove in his Radio 4 interview about how to increase respect for the teaching profession were of mixed quality. The first, that with the Conservatives “you’ve got the next Prime Minister of this country saying that he regards teaching as the most important profession”, was ridiculed on the spot by the presenter. The second, that under the Conservative Party discipline will be better and therefore teachers will feel “safer” in the classroom may, over time, lead some people to enter the profession but it is unclear what comes first, better teachers or better discipline.

The final (and, in my view, best) suggestion is that improving continuing professional development and providing opportunities for teachers to pursue Masters level qualifications will help teachers feel part of a broader academic community and “intellectual and professional elite.” As Tim Brighouse wrote, in his ‘Jigsaw of a successful school’, “Unless the interests and skills of all staff are constantly supported, we produce, as mentioned earlier, more ‘energy consumers’ than ‘energy creators’. It’s a battle between the “Why we can’ts” and the “How we coulds”.” If teachers are seen to be ‘energy creators’, not just for their individual schools but for society, their status will surely rise.

So how would this policy actually change the educational landscape?

In the short term not very much at all as so few teachers currently have third class degrees. However, it does at least point in the direction of a (distant) landscape in which teachers are held in high regard by society – whether or not we ever get there depends on teachers being given real opportunities to develop as professionals. And, because long journeys are expensive, higher salaries might just help get the journey underway.


*It will become ‘noble’ and ‘elitist’ (but probably not in the way Cameron means) if people who can afford to pay for the training themselves are still allowed to become teachers with third class degrees – they will just have to convince the Admissions Tutors that they have a 'Gentleman’s Third'.


  1. Interesting! It feels like one of those 'having a policy point for the sake of having a policy point' moments from the Tories...

    I'm fascinated by the prestige questions: everyone I've ever spoken to considers teaching a 'noble' profession, but one which you enter knowing a) there's not much room for upward mobility, b) your salary will not indicate the supposed social respect you have, and c) it's the frontline of social issues so will be a difficult job.

    So, aside from raising salaries (which would be ideal) how else to raise the prestige? Maybe it's about role-modelling: e.g. are your top businesspeople/politicians/changemakers/inspiring people coming from the teaching world? Probably not, because its a 'career' rather than a job, and the mobility to other professions is limited...might make for interesting policy to promote mobility?

  2. Three reactions:
    1) It seems to me that marks achieved in university are often but not always a good measure of someone's ability to be a good teacher. Of equal (or likely of more) importance are: an enjoyment of working with young people, a real interest and respect for students, and the proven ability to engage them in learning. I always worry when the people who spend their lives with their noses in books and few other interests, get the big marks and then the opportunity to be involved in a graduate course leading to a "people" profession - like medicine, social work and now, seemingly, education!
    2) I agree totally with your thoughts on society's need to invest in attracting such people to the profession - both because it would help interest a broader group if the pay was good, and secondly, because if we as a society agreed to pay more than base salaries to teachers, we would be concretely valuing the enormous contribution they are making.
    3) Professional development is absolutely the way to go. I have watched the nursing profession over the past 10-15 years (at least at the Montreal Neurological Hospital) transform from a "helping-the-doctor-but-totally-subservient-to-him/her" role, to one where a great percentage of the nurses at the MNH have master's degrees and other specialized training, and as a result are involved and respected members of the health-care team. Pay is better too.

  3. Very nice. I'm sure a Google search could answer this for me, but what's a "Desmond"? I totally agree with you (and Brighouse) about making teacher's energy creators. Any policy that restores agency and helps establish teachers as public intellectuals is a step in the right direction...and increasing PD and M-level opportunities is definitely a step in the right direction. But, at least in the case of PD, you have to ensure that it doesn't just become advance training of a technicist nature...

    Keep up the good work.