The perpetual issue of teacher quality is once again up for discussion. The Economist’s lead piece for June makes the valid point that what matters in schools is teachers, and presents a compelling argument for improving initial teacher education (something we discussed in last week’s article). The piece claims that good teachers are made rather than born and that teacher training (ironically, an outdated term) needs to be founded on a rigorous science of pedagogy.
In a challenging economy, it’s little wonder that initial teacher education is under fire. Children and young people need to be excellently prepared for life ahead and when there are signs that perhaps they aren’t, we’re bound to look around for a cause.
Children and young people need to be excellently prepared for life ahead.
However, there are many teacher educators out there who will show you evidence that their courses are founded on a blend of good quality research and excellent classroom experience often in extremely tight financial circumstances. To focus solely on initial teacher education as the cause and therefore potentially the cure of all ills in teacher quality is to miss the opportunity to make real change for the better.
For example, talk to just about any teacher and they will tell you that the one thing that would positively impact their ability to spend more time with each child and to offer constructive feedback that could really push learning forwards is smaller class sizes. While this (potentially expensive) measure often gets dismissed in the debate, we are foolish not to listen. If class size really is irrelevant in our drive to improve teaching and learning, why does the independent sector commit to ensuring that its pupils aren’t crammed in overflowing classes? What would a parent prefer for their child? A class of 16 or a class of 30?
Great teaching is ultimately dependent upon sound, functioning relationships as well as excellent initial teacher education. If we want to improve the quality of teaching, we must facilitate the development of effective relationships between teachers and learners and that invariably means somehow giving teachers more time once on the job. Pointing the finger at initial teacher education will never lead to the large-scale improvements we desire if the circumstances of the job render it impossible to undertake to the highest standards.
High-quality initial teacher education must be followed by excellent, sufficiently funded, in-service early professional development. This must allow the new teacher to identify and pursue learning opportunities that have a direct positive impact on improving the quality of teaching. And this cannot stop once the early years in the profession are complete (a point made by the Economist piece). No nation can be considered to be serious about teacher improvement without substantial investment in continuing professional development that is specific to the needs of the learner throughout their career.
Perhaps, though, the real elephant in the room is teacher wellbeing. We can tweak initial teacher education and pile money into early professional development and beyond, but until we address the issues that negatively impact teachers’ working lives our efforts may be futile. What value in adding additional development to a teacher’s workload if the effect is to destroy balance in the lives of our greatest resource in the drive to improve pupil outcomes?
84% of school leaders found teacher workload difficult to manage in their school in the last 12 months.
The Key’s State of Education Survey Report 2016, ‘Spotlight on Schools: Illuminating the challenges and priorities in school leadership today’ found that 84% of school leaders found teacher workload difficult to manage in their school in the last 12 months. The challenge of workload is considerable, with The Key report stating that, ‘this proved difficult for more school leaders over the past year than any other area of responsibility we asked them to choose from’. Further to this, 62% of school leaders are finding it hard to recruit and retain teachers, with workload being blamed for teachers leaving the profession altogether. It would be ludicrous to allow this debate to rest on the shoulders of initial teacher education if we really want to commit to change.
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.