Joe Nutt examines the business of teacher training, and what government must consider to revolutionise it
With laudable directness, the recent Schools White Paper emphasized the impact of high quality teachers on children’s educational achievements - the most important factor in determining how well children do is the quality of teachers and teaching. No fence sitting there! It also announced an ambition to reform the business of initial teacher training and a plan to develop a national network of new teaching schools under the guidance of the National College for School Leadership.
Driven no doubt by embarrassing OECD statistics from organisations like PISA and PIRLS, the current administration appears eager to show the tabloids that the country’s schools can compete with the best in the world, instead of gasping for breath behind Lithuania or Slovakia. How they intend to go about this is a fascinating question to anyone with enough international experience to understand the subtle cultural nuances that lie behind the crude PIRLS and PISA ﬁgures.
Having spent some time up to my neck in it, I’ve no doubt that the business of teacher training is in need of reform. And it is a business these days: quite big business in fact, if you are one of the larger teacher training institutions. But any business that delivers a product which customers return at the disturbing rate teachers are returned, wouldn't last that long in the ﬁercely competitive world of hard sales. In the UK (and the US) around 50% of all qualiﬁed teachers leave the profession within ﬁve years. This ﬁgure has been stubbornly resistant to change for much longer than a decade and between 2000 and 2007, more than 25,000 people in the UK qualiﬁed as teachers but never taught in a school. There is, of course, a substantial cost attached to this kind of waste and if I was one of those leading providers of teacher training, I would be thinking hard about what it was I was doing which wasn’t working.
If you start to look into the research around this issue, you quickly discover there is an embarrassing excess of research internationally into leadership and school improvement, yet precious little into the one area that focuses attention on that conﬁdent White Paper assertion, the most important factor in determining how well children do is the quality of teachers and teaching. What makes a skilled maths teacher, or geographer, fuels the success of a brilliant physicist or linguist, is a far more pertinent question than how those subject specialists are led, or how you organise or structure the institution in which they work. Their impact inevitably takes place in the very narrow physical and temporal space of a classroom, often a departmental classroom, not the wide open, often ill-deﬁned community that is a school. And what drives them, the skills, knowledge and practice they share with others equally great at the job, one would hope ought to be of particular interest to the policy makers keen on ensuring the UK does better in the PIRLS and PISA race.
A recent study tour to Finland convinced me that this avenue of thinking is just begging to be explored. Those subtle cultural nuances that lie behind the bare OECD performance ﬁgures were visible in every school I visited. But by far the best illustration of this occurred in a sixth form college, outside Helsinki, when I visited a class of 36 pupils studying Swedish. First of all, just take a moment to savour that image. A single classroom containing 36, well behaved, civil seventeen year olds!
Next, reﬂect on this little insight into excellent teaching. One of the girls in this class showed me the essay that had just been returned to her by her teacher. It was about two or more sides of A4, and attached to it was another full sheet of A4, ﬁlled with the distinctive red ink of the teacher. One of the other UK visitors with me instantly called my attention to this shocking sign that all was not well in the Finnish garden of excellence. Red ink! And so much of it. I turned to the next girl and asked to see her essay, which turned out to have been dealt with the same, scarlet ruthlessness by the teacher. The interesting point is that where one teacher trained in the UK saw harsh and critical red ink. The other saw a class of 36 essays which had taken that teacher at least ﬁve to six hours of careful, thorough work, to mark and return. And behind that admirable level of professionalism, I am willing to bet I’d ﬁnd a teacher with a passion for her subject.
If this government is serious about revolutionising the business of teacher training then they will need to forget all the leadership research saturated by business and marketing thinking, and take a hard, objective look at what an excellent, secondary school specialist teacher actually looks like.