Teachers matter

2012 will see 325,000 15 year old pupils in 65 countries and regions sit PISA tests in Reading, Maths and Science.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) compares levels of educational attainment every three years.  The 2009 tests saw the UK slip down the league tables with British students finishing 16th in Science, 25th in Reading and 28th in Maths.  At the top of the table came Shanghai, South Korea, Finland, Hong Kong and Singapore.

International comparisons always generate lots of media excitement, with the British press in particular wallowing in ‘why are we so bad?’ stories.   The question of course should be why others are better and what can we learn from them?  The answer is quite simple as the 2010 PISA report itself notes; “the bottom line is that the quality of the school system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers”.

Spring at the Perse is the season for teacher recruitment.  We are an expanding school, and are fortunate that our growth has corresponded with a challenging employment market.  Top graduates who would have been City bound in better economic times are more likely to follow their hearts into teaching when financiers and lawyers stop recruiting.   Since 2008 The Perse has enjoyed some vintage years of teacher recruitment adding to the existing pool of excellent staff.  We have succeeded in finding many of the academically talented and hugely motivational teachers that deliver educational excellence.

Investing time in recruiting and retaining high quality staff is essential.  PISA research demonstrates that educational attainment is highest in countries with well qualified, well motivated and well respected teachers who enjoy high levels of professional autonomy.  I have long believed in recruiting the very best teachers, setting them demanding objectives, but giving them considerable freedom in how they achieve these goals.  The result is a vibrant and diverse teaching community, with teachers sparking off one another in a virtuous circle of innovation and rising standards.

In recent years the British government has invested heavily in improving the physical fabric of education through the Building Schools for the Future programme.  Politicians like such tangible schemes where progress is recorded in bricks and mortar.  However, of greater importance is an investment in human capital.  A new classroom does not make a great lesson without the addition of an excellent teacher.  If Britain is to climb back up the PISA league tables then we need to prioritise spending on teacher recruitment, retention and professional development.  We also need a society that values teachers such that teaching becomes an aspirational profession and there is a default respect for teachers.  Such aspiration and respect are inherent within the Confucian cultures that dominate the PISA league tables.


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