Rigour is a word that Michael Gove likes. We are to have rigorous public exams, rigour in the teaching profession, a rigorous approach to school accountability, perhaps even the Department for Rigour.
As Head of a leading independent school I am all for rigour. High expectations, demanding standards, complete commitment from staff and pupils – all are essential ingredients of school success.
However, there is a big difference between talking tough and acting tough. The tougher entry tests for trainee teachers announced today http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-20083249 are being set at the equivalent of ‘B’ grades in GCSE Maths and English. Asking a 21 year old graduate to achieve the level required of a 16 year old is hardly a high hurdle to clear, or a guarantee of gold standard in literacy or numeracy.
It is an over-hyped small step in the right direction, but the government should be praised for trying to improve standards in the teaching profession. The single largest control on educational attainment is the quality of teachers and their teaching. Improving the knowledge, skills, calibre and commitment of teachers will have far more impact on children’s learning than any number of expensive and time consuming curriculum and exam reforms.
However, in focusing on basic literacy and numeracy the government overlooks a more acute problem. In many subjects, especially Maths and the Sciences, a worrying number of teachers are teaching subjects which they do not have a degree in. A 2008 study found that only 47% of those teaching Maths in secondary schools had a Maths degree.
The government is offering financial incentives for talented graduates in shortage subjects to join the teaching profession. Laudable schemes like Teach First are having a beneficial impact, but the rate of progress is slow. Moreover, whilst talented graduates may go into teaching during a recession will the same be true once the economy recovers? Independent schools recruit and retain excellent staff because they offer attractive terms and conditions. If Mr Gove is serious about turning rigorous words into rigorous action then he will have to improve salaries for all teachers.
Golden hellos may attract good graduates in shortage subjects into teaching, but freezing pay and cutting benefits are unlikely to keep them in the classroom.