Qualified = quality?

Of all the observations I’ve made on Twitter in recent months, my suggestion that it may be worth allowing unqualified teachers into the class room has been (by some distance) the least popular. It’s the turd in the swimming pool; the plate of pork scratchings at the bar mitzvah.

This was not an observation made purely to provoke. I taught in the UK for just over 18 years, in three independent Schools. There is no requirement for teachers to be qualified in the UK independent sector, and we were interested only in appointing the best people for each job advertised. The best Schools are always those with the best teachers, and nothing makes one’s job easier as a manager than having really good people around you, effectively making you look good.

We wanted to cast our net far and wide, and so as well as advertising through the standard channels, we used to contact the top dozen or so universities, enquiring whether they had any particularly impressive final year undergraduates or postgraduates who might be interested in a career in teaching, or even just or year or two’s teaching experience. We used all contacts available (through recent teaching appointments, ex-pupils etc) to ensure that any person who might be worth an interview ended up applying for any post advertised.

By contacting the universities direct, we could ensure at the very least we would be getting a genuine expert in that subject, recommended by those at the university who knew them well. We would be under no compulsion to appoint them, nor even to interview, but we did appoint teachers (maybe one in ten) over a number of years via this route. None of those teachers ended up being what one might term a poor appointment, and some were amongst the best teachers I have worked with. What we all seek in teachers are those people who really know and enjoy their subject; someone who is able to communicate their expertise; someone who can build strong connections with those they teach; someone hard-working, with an appropriate amount of gravitas. You don’t need a qualification in teaching to possess those attributes. You certainly need a good degree in the relevant subject from a good university as a minimum, but the other characteristics are related to the individual, and can probably be developed more than ‘taught’.

Comparisons are often made between teachers and other professions when it comes to qualifications, or lack of them. Pilots and brain surgeons are the most common examples used to scoff at the possibility that any teacher might be able to succeed without a teaching qualification. No-one would suggest picking someone at random to operate on a patient, but the training for such a role occurs as part of a medical degree, just as one could argue that the training to be a maths teacher comes as part of a degree in maths. One does not need a qualification from catering College apparently to be a world-renowned chef (Heston Blumenthal is self-taught), and though he may be an exceptional case, there are also exceptional teachers who have not been formally trained, other than in their subject. Teaching is perhaps more like driving. There are some drivers who despite managing to pass their test in the dim and distant past, should probably not be behind the wheel of a car today.

Teaching is a more natural act than some people think. Flying a plane is certainly not something that should be attempted without having been taught how to do it, but every single one of us acts as a teacher at some point. Whether it’s as parents helping our children to read or simply explaining to a friend the rules of an unfamiliar sport, we all teach, just as we all learn. We don’t need a piece of paper endorsing us for these skills, just as it’s not always necessary for a teacher to know about the 1944 Education Act, Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development or Bloom’s taxonomy.

I have known and worked with some excellent teachers and some lousy teachers. The quality has probably been better amongst the unqualified, but that’s because we tend to see these appointments as carrying greater risk and therefore only made an appointment when we felt sure of success. I share the concerns of many about the status of the teaching profession, especially the worryingly low academic threshold required to be accepted onto a degree in teacher education, but I also believe that despite its counter-intuitive nature, opening up the profession to a wider candidacy may just help to raise the bar.