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More Oxbridge grads choose teaching – but it’s no wonder they gravitate to private schools

Out the door and into teaching. generalising/flickr, CC BY-SA

There are double the number of Oxbridge graduates teaching in English schools today as there were 12 years ago, according to a new report from The Sutton Trust education charity. The numbers have dramatically increased from 5,000 to 11,000, but there is still a significant gap between state and public schools: independent school teachers are three times as likely to hold an Oxbridge subject degree as teachers in state schools.

There also continues to be a gap in the number of secondary school teachers who hold a PhD qualification – one in 15 in independent schools and one in 40 in state schools.

Percentage of all teachers who attended Oxbridge, by post-A level qualification. Sutton Trust, Teaching by Degrees report

The increase in Oxbridge graduates is hardly surprising: there has been a recession which may have led Oxbridge graduates to seek relatively safe public-sector jobs such as teaching. The charity Teach First has been very successful in recruiting graduates from “top” universities to teach in inner-city state schools. Free schools, such as the East London Science School which has a curriculum which emphasises in-depth subject knowledge, may have also proved attractive to bright graduates from top universities with a love of their subject.

What the report does not do is examine its much more important subsidiary finding that deep knowledge of their subject is what makes someone a good teacher. Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council said: “Independent schools have long understood that a teacher with specialised subject knowledge is best equipped to instil enthusiasm for learning in students”.

This finding is likely to be contested by many teacher trainers and teachers in the state sector, particularly those advocating for a skills-based curriculum. But I’d argue that the belief in subject-based teaching – in which knowledge of specific subjects such as maths, geography or French is the driving force of the curriculum, rather than teaching children “soft skills” such as critical thinking – is what divides the state and independent sectors.

If you are an Oxbridge or Russell Group graduate and passionate about your subject, the independent sector is where you will look for a teaching post. There is what we might call a “knowledge gap” between the two sectors. The report makes a few suggestions about “incentives” and “efforts” and school “partnerships” to close this knowledge gap but it focuses too narrowly on qualifications.

Subject knowledge should be high priority

Politicians, teacher trainers and teachers in the state sector need to focus on bringing knowledge back in to the sector or they will effectively be abandoning the job of educating children. In his recent inaugural lecture at the University of Derby, the distinguished sociologist of education Michael Young argued for access to “powerful knowledge” for all children, and that:

A subject-based curriculum… is the most reliable way we have developed of transmitting and acquiring powerful knowledge.

Powerful knowledge is not the knowledge owned by the powerful, but our common heritage which, if transmitted to all, gives all pupils from whatever background the possibility of achieving their full academic potential.

Under the former education secretary Michael Gove, the Department for Education of the coalition government was taken by the idea that what Young calls “powerful knowledge” should be the foundation of the education system. It may have tried but it failed to go far enough in cementing knowledge within those foundations.

The new Conservative majority government now has the power to ensure that all children have access to “powerful knowledge” – but it needs confidence to pursue this agenda. No offence to teacher educator Tom Bennett, who hates these labels, but we don’t need a “Behaviour Tsar” – the role to which he has just been appointed; we need a “Knowledge Tsar”.

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