24 Nov 10

How can we make our teachers better? Not like this

In her Daily Telegraph article "How can we make our teachers better?", Katharine Birbalsingh makes some very simplistic assertions about teachers, their training and their unions.

The unions do not have "a one-size-fits-all policy" Voice: the union for education professionals certainly doesn't. Clearly, unions exist to represents their members, but that doesn't mean that "Whoever you are, however woeful you are, the unions will defend you".

Voice has called for the whole children's workforce including teachers, support staff, childcarers and social workers to be trained not only in safeguarding children, but in communicating with other professionals and questioning practice where necessary: "Whistle-blowing should be everyone's duty rather than something undertaken by the brave or, as it's seen by many, the foolhardy."

It should not be about conflict with head teachers having "the backbone to take on the unions and win with exceptional will and determination" but sensible discussion and negotiation.

Like all the unions, we have our members' best interests at the heart of what we do as many grateful members have told us.

The important thing is that there are proper processes in place for supporting incompetent teachers and for supporting underperforming teachers and it is the role of the union to ensure that such processes are used properly and fairly - not to prevent them being used at all. Each case has to be judged individually.

Yes, we do need "bright, capable people in teaching who love children and enjoy inspiring them" but the observation "I don't think I have ever met an excellent teacher with a third-class degree. A third normally suggests a penchant for laziness" is outrageous. She might not have met them but they certainly exist!

Ms Birbalsingh's experience has clearly been gained in schools that are not typical of the whole country. We're frequently told that "London" is different and it certainly would appear to be so if her experience is anything to go by. The danger in what she says is that she projects her very limited experience and her very partial view onto the whole of the country's education system. It's just not true.

Her assertion to the Commons Select Committee that teachers should constantly be in fear of their jobs in order to perform well is not how teachers or any other employees should be motivated to perform well and few people would want to work for her if that is her management style.

While it is important that high recruitment standards are maintained, recruiting only those with at least a 2.2 degree could prevent some high quality candidates from becoming teachers, and possibly cause a shortage of recruits in the future.

There are many excellent teachers out there with thirds and plenty of people with firsts who are brilliant academically but would be hopeless at passing on that knowledge to children or inspiring them to take interest in a subject.


"Let those without sin cast the first stone" [John ch 8 v 7] There is too much stone casting, not least by Ofsted. I for one would love to observe a lesson taught by an Ofsted inspector or any other armchair critic. I'm not holding my breath.

Thank you Mr. Gove for telling me I'm not clever enough to be a teacher. My third class degree in Physics seems to mean I'm just too thick. Never mind the 77% of my GCSE students who got an A* or an A last summer or the 48 students who opted for A level Physics. Oh, and in case you think, Mr. Gove, that this is a political rant, you might want to consider that I spent much of my time at University working for the Conservative Party and subsequently became a Conservative councillor in the London Borough of Haringey, not that I'm likely to vote for you again after this insult.

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