This Thursday’s Question Time seemed destined to create a stir, given that it featured the UK’s most prominent anti-Israel MP, George Galloway.
It was filmed in Finchley, which has one of the largest Jewish communities in the country. Sure enough, when the debate turned to Israel, the scene could have been likened to when the Romans used to throw a prisoner into the amphitheatre with a pack of hungry lions. Though I think it’s safe to say Mr Galloway put up more fight than a petty Roman thief. But it was not this that caused controversy. Rather, friction was caused when the debate turned to education – somewhat fitting in the former constituency of Margaret Thatcher, possibly the most famous (or should that be infamous?) Education Minister of recent times.
Both the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan PC, and her shadow counterpart, Dr Tristram Hunt, were on the panel, so it was to be expected that there would be some sparring over education policy as we head into the election. However, it was a comment made by journalist Cristina Odone (who also works for the Dubai-based Legatum Think Tank) regarding unqualified teachers, that caught Hunt’s ire. When Odone praised the education she received from unqualified teachers, Hunt blurted out, “they were all nuns though, weren’t they?” Some, particularly former-MP turned professional Twitter-user Louise Mensch, lept on Hunt as having attacked nuns, even though it appeared that he was in fact pointing out that not everyone has the same opportunities as were presented to Odone at the National Cathedral School.
Despite the clumsiness of Hunt’s intervention, it does raise an interesting point as regards whether unqualified teachers should be allowed in state education. In the private sector, it has always been the case that unqualified teachers have been accepted. Then in 2012, Education Secretary Michael Gove announced that Academies could hire unqualified teachers too, which he claimed was a step to bring state sector closer to the private. In addition to this, the Free Schools introduced by Gove allow schools to hire teachers without QTS (Qualified Teacher Status).
This announcement was surprisingly well received. It appears that teaching is one of the few professions where the public are happy to accept that those who practice it have no qualification specific to the profession. This is based largely on the argument that if someone is an expert in their subject – in that they have a degree – then they have the ability to teach it, and that QTS is “just a piece of paper” (to borrow a phrase used by a Question Time audience member). This “piece of paper” therefore becomes redundant if a person knows what they are talking about.
One could extend this metaphor: if someone has done 6 years of medical training and been given their degree they probably have as much anatomical knowledge as a surgeon, but are you going to let them try and remove your appendix? The presumption that teaching requires no training undermines the position of teachers, it’s essentially the government telling teachers that anyone can do their job, just as long as they have the prior knowledge base.
The argument goes that if you hire non-QTS teachers then you’re widening the potential number of people you can hire and therefore get people who are experts in their field. It does also stand to reason that this will have a positive effect on pupils, but only if the person hired has the ability to convey their ideas effectively. It would be all well and good to hire Dr Brian Cox, an undoubted expert in his field, but there’s no guarantee he’d be able to teach a group of 30 students from a Nottingham council estate who are struggling to get a C at GCSE.
The thinking behind introducing non-QTS teachers to the state sector is that it would allow ‘specialists’ into schools, without them having to go through the process of teacher training, and that this would therefore reduce the achievement gap between state and private schools. This may be the case with high-achieving state schools and, in particular, grammar schools, where pupil achievement is not that different to private schools. However, schools further down the league tables (of which Mr Gove was so fond) are likely not going to be affected, since the ‘specialists’ Gove envisioned benefiting from this scheme, likely aren’t going to be attracted to teaching in them.
Despite this, the debate will be obfuscated by “nungate” (as Twitter quickly decreed this would be called) and though Tristram Hunt’s intentions may be good, sticking his foot in his mouth on Question Time is not really going to help. This issue of non-QTS teachers will likely not be a key factor in the upcoming election – unless Labour really choose to push back against the reforms made by Michael Gove – but it is one which could seriously effect the education system under another Conservative-led government.