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You wouldn’t want an unqualified doctor or lawyer … so why are untrained teachers ok?

Sit tight while I look that up. Teacher via gualtiero boffi/Shutterstock

In many ways it’s incredible that in 2014 there is still a debate about whether teachers should be qualified or not. Imagine deliberating similar issues about your lawyer, your doctor or your surgeon?

The announcement in 2012 by Michael Gove, the former secretary of state for education, that academies and free schools should be allowed to employ unqualified teachers sent waves of incredulity across the profession. Now his successor Nicky Morgan is coming under considerable pressure from Labour and the Liberal Democrats to reverse the decision.

But why are we even having this debate? Particularly when a poll conducted by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) in anticipation of the policy change found that 89% of parents want their child to have a qualified teacher, with just 1% saying they are “comfortable about those without the teaching qualification taking charge of a class”.

As a great deal of current education policy is premised on the ideals of parental choice and the parent as customer, it seems bizarre to say that in this – one of the most important elements of education policy – we appear to be ignoring parental views.

Freedom and flexibility

Yet there are many people working in schools who are unqualified but often put in front of a class, as was revealed in another NUT survey. There has been an overall rise in the number of unqualified teaching staff at academies and free schools, with 6% of full-time teaching staff lacking teaching qualification in 2013.

Gove justified his position by arguing that the move would offer academies and free schools more freedom and flexibility. He said that it would make up the shortfalls in subjects such as computer science, engineering and languages bringing them more in line with private schools where “qualified teacher status” is often desirable but not mandatory.

New statistics released by the Department for Education show that in a survey of 74 free schools, 24 had appointed staff without qualified teacher status (QTS). Of these, the most popular single subjects to be taught by non-qualified teachers were physical education with 29%, and maths, art and design and music, each with 21%.

As an former teacher educator in higher education, I worked with teachers – many of whom had been practising without any teacher training. In some cases these teachers had a genuine wish to improve their teaching by achieving the qualification, but in many cases they saw it as “jumping through the hoop” of organisational requirements.

Stuck with one way of teaching

For many, the work turned out to be fascinating, not least in terms of what studying for the qualification actually brought to their day-to-day practices. People who had been teaching or training for years were often rarely observed in their work and had become “stuck” in their habits – unable to progress due to a lack of understanding of strategies that could move them on.

In the absence of any initial training, most admitted to modelling their teaching on teachers that they had been taught by in the past. This strategy varied in its success.

They were not armed with a range of strategies to draw on when the going became tough. Because they largely modelled their teaching on one style – often the style that appealed to them as learners – they found it incredibly difficult to think outside of this box.

Even in the case of good and dedicated teachers, studying for a qualification offered them the ability to try new approaches with their students and empowered them to take risks. Crucially, it allowed them some one-to-one time with an observer who was not involved in the politics of their workplace or appraising them for their next pay increment.

Good continuous training

This is not just an argument for the primacy of initial teacher training but equally emphasises the need for good and continuing professional development. This is a point well made in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2013 Teaching and Learning International Survey: countries earmarked for their successful education systems gave teachers time to develop as well as to learn.

It is this time to develop that unqualified teachers don’t have. If you learn on the job with no time to explore your work outside of its daily demands, there is a far greater likelihood that feelings of professional isolation and lack of capacity to change will lead to greater levels of attrition and disillusionment with the profession.

Good quality teacher training arms teachers with a deeper understanding not only of how to teach, but more importantly how students learn and what motivates them. It provides the basis for a sound professional identity. That’s one of the pre-requisites for professional resilience – carrying on when the going gets tough.

‘Naïve’ policy

It is vital that this naïve policy is reversed sooner rather than later. Enthusiasm and experience are great but they will never replace a thorough professional training.

In four long years have we really forgotten the 2010 white paper The Importance of Teaching in which it was stated: “the best education systems in the world train their teachers rigorously and effectively.”

Unless we ensure that all of our teachers have the knowledge and skills that good basic and ongoing training provides then it is likely that academies and free schools will be staffed in the future by people who can talk the talk but lack the deeper knowledge and professional resilience that is the hallmark and foundation of all respected professions.

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