What makes a good teacher?


A recent High Court ruling in Scotland has re-opened the debate about the entry levels we should maintain for the teaching profession. Alex Wood asks what makes a good teacher.

A High Court ruling in Edinburgh has over-turned the refusal of the General Teaching Council of Scotland to register science teacher Derek Sturridge. For more than 30 years, entry to teaching in Scotland has been open only to graduates.

Mr Sturridge, who had a successful teaching career in England prior to moving to Scotland, successfully argued in the Court of Session that his Fellowship of the Royal Society of Chemistry was equivalent to a degree. Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, said the organisation had “very serious concerns” about lowering the entry requirements to the GTCS register.

There is a real tension between worthy principles and pragmatic common sense in this issue. For many years, indeed, such qualifications, often attained by hard study completed while in employment, were considered to be degree equivalents.

Part of the problem is that fewer and fewer higher level education awards are now pursued by those in employment. The concept of training on the job for such professional areas as chemistry, engineering, nursing or physiotherapy, to name a few, has been entirely replaced by study at university. Other qualifications also, such as Licentiateships of the Colleges of Music, were deemed degree equivalents.

The contemporary assumption is that anyone worth their academic weight must have a university degree. The result is a bias against those who do not have such a degree. That is, to say the least, questionable. The issue has been complicated in the teaching context by two seemingly contradictory pressures.

On the hand David Cameron has said that he wants to raise the standards of teaching by ensuring that no-one with less than a 2:2 would get funding to enter teacher training. Cameron’s elitist rhetoric assumes that personal academic excellence is the precondition of excellent teaching. Two of the best teachers I ever knew had 3rds and two of the worst teachers I knew had PhDs. Meanwhile, Teach First, with its high-flying but professionally unqualified graduates, is seeking to gain a toe-hold in Scotland.

On the other hand, one of the most equitable, and successful, of European school systems, Finland’s, not only has an all-graduate profession but actively encourages all its teachers to pursue Master’s level qualifications.

Nonetheless, it is worth remembering why Scottish teacher unions fought for an all-graduate profession. First, there were unqualified (not only non-graduate but utterly unqualified) teachers in Scottish schools, particularly in the old junior secondaries. They were often young people who had failed their degree or dropped out of university. They were given the poorest classes to teach and were paid a pittance. They undermined the very concept of a professional teacher workforce committed both to high standards of pedagogy and to maintaining wages and conditions.

Second, teaching was a profession divided by grades of qualifications. At the top, were the honours graduates, still paid more than ordinary graduates when I entered teaching, and for whom were reserved all the promoted posts. Then there were the ordinary graduates. Then there were the non-graduates, the teachers with professional diplomas – in PE, home economics, technical subjects and, of course, in the primary sector.

It was a status-conscious, hierarchy in which pay, conditions and security were constantly undermined by the divisions within the profession which these structures created.

For all these reasons, teachers are right to be vigilant on qualifications. We should defend the concepts of both an all-graduate and all-qualified profession. Common sense should facilitate the recognition of certain hard-won and academically rigorous qualifications as degree equivalents – but without differentials based on levels of qualifications. The Educational Institute of Scotland has got this one right.

  • Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.



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