The Teaching Qualifications Debate

It seems hard to believe, but the political establishment has already begun to position itself for the next general election. With each election cycle, education comes into the spotlight. This is no surprise: education is a policy area that affects a vast percentage of the electorate, making it a prime platform from which politicians can reach out and grab the public interest. Education policy has undergone a lot of change under the current government, from an expansion in the number of academies to the introduction of free schools. Indeed, the coalition has not stopped there. Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, has promised free school lunches to all pupils between reception and year two in the next parliament.

However, there is another proposed reform that has introduced a lot more controversy. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has made waves by suggesting that it is unnecessary for teachers in state schools to have specific teaching qualifications. Rather, he argues, schools should be able to hire any individual who has a command of the necessary material, and has the passion and creativity to provide lessons that are engaging and effective. Free schools and independent schools already have the freedom to operate in this way, and so, the argument goes, should state schools.

There is some suggestion that this would be an effective reform. The teaching qualifications themselves do not impart a love of teaching, or necessarily a love of a particular subject, and enthusiastic teachers are much more likely to keep their students engaged in the material. Particularly where a subject is highly technical or specialised, a teacher who is an expert in that particular field, but who lacks a specific teaching qualification such as a PGCE, may be just as effective, if not more so, than a traditionally qualified teacher. The fact that independent schools feel secure using teachers without formal qualifications speaks to the ability of such individuals to create successful learning environments. It is also argued that older students may be better served by teachers who have experience working in the field or subject that they are teaching. For instance, physics teachers who have worked as engineers in the private sector can help students understand how the material they learn in the classroom can help them build a future in the workforce.

Naturally, the opposition Labour party has raised myriad issues with this proposal. Tristram Hunt, the Shadow Education Secretary, has claimed that these reforms are irresponsible, and not in the best interests of students. Labour ministers point to a similar reform in Sweden, where free schools, which are run for profit, hired unqualified teachers over qualified ones when feeling the pinch of cuts to education budgets. The result was slipping standards and the ultimate reversal of the policy. Teaching qualifications give teachers a good grounding in how children learn and expose them to different teaching strategies. Furthermore, having a teaching qualification would seem to indicate a dedication to teaching by demonstrating years of study and development in pursuit of the profession. Those who walk into teaching without a qualification could be more likely to simply walk back out again.

In any discussion about education reform that precedes a general election, the ideas are much more likely to be driven by ideology than by any deep or comprehensive understanding of pedagogy.

Carmela Hinckley, an educator at Twyford Church of England High School, with nearly twenty years experience, believes that the qualification is still important, and that the dichotomy that Michael Gove is presenting between qualified teachers and passionate subject-experts is false. “ While Michael Gove and others have said that [teachers] don’t have to have a qualification, he then uses the words ‘passion’, ‘knowledge’, and ‘engagement’, and those are the three things that the qualification looks for. Because the passion, knowledge, and engagement are constantly tested in the process of qualifying.”

At present, the government has no plans to provide a pathway to qualification for those individuals who choose to enter the teaching profession without a teaching qualification. This does seem like a mistake, and correcting this could be a way to bridge the two sides of this debate by making it easier for highly qualified people to enter teaching, but also making sure that they receive the type of training that will provide them with a wider skill-set, and make it more likely for them to last in the profession. Indeed, Ms. Hinckley believes that training for a teaching qualification provides teachers with the skills they need to confront the evolving challenges of teaching. These challenges range from evolving curricula and standards to the effects of family breakdown.

It goes without saying that having a teaching qualification does not make a good teacher, and research indicates that education systems that hold teachers to account, regardless of how long they’ve been in the profession, when their effectiveness begins to wane, produce the best results. Teaching qualifications are steps in the right direction, but they are hardly the only things encouraging strong performance. In Mrs. Hinckley’s opinion, the culture of the school, and the school environment, are instrumental in driving high teacher standards.

Indeed, investing in education professionals by consistently providing them with opportunities for feedback and development is crucial, and perhaps the best way to ensure that pupils are getting the best education available.