Half-term gave ample opportunity to reflect on the importance of teacher quality in raising standards, with news on initial teacher training challenges, the employment of unqualified staff, and a major Sutton Trust literature review led by Professor Rob Coe.
The Sutton Trust review also had a stab at defining teacher quality: subject knowledge and instructional skill, combined with classroom climate and classroom management. The importance of subject knowledge is really coming back into vogue.
The report also sounded a note of caution about snap judgements of teaching quality, suggesting that school leaders triangulate judgements from observation, data and student feedback.
Teacher quality is one of the biggest dilemmas we face. It is central to standards and central to narrowing the gap, as children from disadvantaged backgrounds benefit more from a good teacher than any other group. But the trouble with teacher quality is its seeming immunity to government intervention. There really is very little that central government can do – and much that can make it worse.
Securing a good quality supply of teachers is, of course, one thing they can do. This is important but an incredibly slow way of changing the system. Professor Dylan Wiliam has said that if you can’t be with the one you love, learn to love the one you’re with – meaning we can do more working with existing teachers than with creating new teachers. This is where the difficulties lie. Take investing in CPD. Were the government to mandate a certain number of hours of CPD, it is not clear that it would help. We don’t yet know enough about what works to direct our spending wisely at a national level. Overly coercive approaches to performance management, to take another example, may constrain development.
Even rapid policy change in itself diminishes professional development – much non-contact time is taken up learning about the latest initiative rather than focusing on individual practice. Because of this INSET, if we are honest, is often a briefing event rather than genuine training.
Teacher quality is therefore largely a matter for the profession itself, often decided at school or classroom level. It is something that government can clear a path for but not a great deal more. Of course, if the profession then refuses to travel down the path, it will deserve all the interference it gets.
School leaders can do a huge amount to create cultures in which development flourishes. They can devote themselves to helping every teacher get better step-by-step. Teachers themselves can take ownership of their standards and root their practice in the best available evidence. The creation of a College of Teaching is a good first step, creating the institutional structures for defining standards based on evidence.
In the absence of national evidence about what works, should we delegate more autonomy to individual teachers to determine their development needs? We often hear the argument that their training must fit into the schools’ needs, but if the school is setting clear performance objectives, the teacher has every incentive to choose development that meets both their needs and the school’s needs. Perhaps a balance of school-led and teacher-led development is the answer.
Subject knowledge also counts towards this sense of independence. I am struck by Michael Young’s claim, for example, that a focus on subject knowledge and subject pedagogy is an assertion of professional freedom. That curriculum design can reawaken confidence and passion. This feels true, which may be part of the reason that people get so angry about political interference in the curriculum. Subject boundaries and their associated institutions provide a structure for the conversation between the generation of new knowledge and the transmission of current knowledge, a structure that can operate without political guidance.
Russell Hobby is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. Visit www.naht.org.uk