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Teaching Quality

Part of Opposition Day — [19th Allotted Day] — UNHCR Syrian Refugees Programme – in the House of Commons at 6:08 pm on 29th January 2014.

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Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Liberal Democrat, Southport 6:08 pm, 29th January 2014

This debate has the entirely laudable aim of raising the status of teachers. There has been a need to do that ever since George Bernard Shaw said “those who can’t, teach”, to which Woody Allen added that those who can’t teach, teach PE.

I have to begin with a confession. I began teaching without any teaching qualifications. Having left university with a philosophy degree, I took a job with Liverpool city council as an estate manager. At that stage, Liverpool city council thought that it needed to employ graduates, but it was apparent after a week that neither the council nor I knew exactly what I was supposed to do. I saw an advertisement for Warwick Bolam secondary modern school in Bootle and within a week I was teaching 11 to 16-year-olds in what was a surprisingly good and well-run school. I had to learn quickly on the job because the tradition in Bootle was that the children felt obliged to play up and the teacher had to demonstrate that they could exert control. Failure to do so was a route to a nervous breakdown, resignation and a pretty unhappy life. The children actually preferred not to mess around, but the onus was on me to demonstrate that they could be prevented from doing so.

After two quite happy years in the classroom, I was sent a letter by the Department of Education and Science, as it then was, saying that I was a qualified teacher. By that time I had moved on to Salesian high school, also in Bootle, which had become a comprehensive school, where I taught English, history and social studies. The last of those was a new subject introduced for embittered 15-year-olds who had been badly affected by the raising of the school leaving age and were disgruntled to be there, but it worked.

It gets worse. I was then asked to take on A-level sociology, which I believe to be a much underrated and misunderstood discipline. Unbelievably, I helped to revise and set the extremely testing and highly theoretical A-level syllabus and exams for the Joint Matriculation Board. The students’ A-level results were pretty good—in line with, or better than, their grades in other subjects.

After a happy and successful decade, I moved to a top independent school as head of religious studies, also teaching some Latin, neither of which subjects I had taught before. Only towards the end of my career did I teach philosophy at A-level, which was what my degree was in. In the meantime, I had done a diploma, an MEd and even, for no apparent reason, a course in teaching maths, which I found interesting rather than of any real use in the classroom.

I therefore clearly cannot argue credibly that teacher training is either a sufficient or a necessary condition for being a good teacher. Indeed, I would probably argue that an effortless grasp of some subjects, such as that shown by brilliant mathematicians and the like, often equips people poorly to explain them to lesser mortals who are struggling to comprehend them. I believe that teacher training can help, inspire and provide a fund of ideas that the grind of day-to-day teaching might not. It cannot provide commitment and dedication, which are indispensible to successful teaching, but it can do much that is good.

I refer hon. Members to the recent, surprisingly enlightened, CBI report on our education system, “First steps: a new approach for our schools”. It argues that good schools are those that are well led and have clear and challenging targets, but that have considerable flexibility in how they organise themselves and their staff, and that even an enlightened Secretary of State should back off. It seems to me that today’s teachers would welcome that. They have a prodigious, often unnecessary administrative load, and they are already assessed rigorously in every school worth its salt. To add a national scheme of revalidation for every teacher, as proposed by Labour, seems to me overload on top of overload and would not be welcomed by the profession. It is likely to annoy good professionals, to no real effect. Continuing professional development—we are up for that. However, Government teacher MOTs would simply produce clones, not charisma, if successful and further de-professionalisation and more of a tick-box culture if unsuccessful.