…but only a bit because, as many of my previous posts show, I’m happy to sing in tune with the majority most of the time: academies – worrying; bullying headteachers – boo; me – crap. I have no qualms, however, about striking bum notes or warbling a lonely and discordant descant when the topic demands it. So, let us move our chairs into a circle and adopt confessional tones. [Clears throat] My name is Joe. I am a pseudonymic conduit for otherwise-hidden events, and my confession is that… I’m sorry [begins to chew at knuckles – own, because the alternative is just weird]…it’s that, I think subject knowledge and qualifications really matter. There. Said it. May I exhale now?
I began teaching when the plague was rife, Eric Idle was a binman and, despite being a newly-qualified teacher, I did not have to start my working life on the bottom rung of the salary ladder. Because that’s how it was in the early Middle Ages: academic achievement – class of degree, postgraduate study – determined one’s position on the pay scale, and did so mandatorily. As I’d graduated with a first, at a time when the percentage doing so was still in single figures, my starting salary had to be at point 2 or above. By the time I’d been awarded my PhD, the link between academic achievement and pay had become discretionary and, to the horror of the professor who’d supervised my research, I received not a pfenning more than anyone else for my extra subject knowledge.
As soon as rewards become discretionary – and I’m almost certain that PRP will demonstrate this – they begin to take their dying breaths. (Or you do. If offered a hasty leg-up to the next scale point, cut to the chase by ramming a spout into your neck and draining the blood into a jug from which the school’s ubermenschen can sip daintily.) The reason for doing away with obligatory points for qualifications was, of course, governmental parsimony. Of course, it was dressed up to look like pedagogic sense. And, of course, person after person – teacher after teacher (we’re obedient like that) – has repeated this version to the point that it’s broken away from its moorings and become a free-floating cliche on the duckpond of the profession. As I have been told innumerable times, possession of a first-class degree does not guarantee that an individual can teach. Absolutely. Just as possession of a third-class degree is no guarantee of teaching ability. That point doesn’t seem to be made with anywhere near the frequency its counterpart enjoys.
So, where do we stand on the question of qualifications, riven as it is with internal contradictions? Do they matter or not? I assume that they do because a lot of people in teaching get extremely vexed about practices like employing unqualified staff and using classroom assistants as class teachers. Quite right too. In fact, one of the largest teaching unions is so opposed to the deployment of support staff in teaching roles, it refuses to allow them to join the ranks of its members. Qualified Teacher Status is regarded by most as a professional pre-requisite – one over which it’s worth striking, even if it sets its bar nowhere near high enough. So far, so clear: Qualifications Are Good.
Which brings us to the next point: does the level at which one passes a qualification matter? Well, according to every school, pulling every trick it can think of to elevate its students’ grades, it most certainly does. Fail to reach the levels specified in its floor targets, and one can kiss the world and its duck’s ass goodbye. Expect to be uneducable, and then unemployable. And don’t say you weren’t warned that you’d end up unlovable if you achieved anything less than a ____ [insert government-decreed mark]. So, let me repeat for clarification: The Levels Of One’s Qualifications Matter.
Unless you’re a teacher. Apparently.
We all know that international league tables can send politicos into foamy-mouthed pronouncements about trouncing the yellow peril (or, at least, that’s the subtext). However, many teachers point to the Nordic nations’ PISA rankings for proof that the absence of a punitive inspection regime, league tables and an ingrained societal disregard for teachers can work educational wonders. It’s also the case that there are certain countries – often, the ones that feature so frequently among the tables’ high-fliers, they’re accruing air miles – in which only the very best graduates are allowed to become teachers. And, for the record, I am aware of the difference between correlation and causation.
I don’t mind having my qualifications declared so much flim-flam. I note wryly that it’s never happened at the hands of someone comparably qualified, and that it says as much about my interlocutor as it does about me. And I have to quell a guffaw at the fact that my last head teacher, more than anyone else for whom I’ve worked, made a point of denigrating my academic qualifications while falsifying his own upwards on his Linkedin page. His judgement of my performance usually attributed my allegedly “outstanding practice” to the quality of my planning when, as I pointed out, the evidence he cited came as frequently from the unplanned parts of my lessons: the ones in which, spotting the potential in a student’s comment, I changed the course of the lesson while remaining all the while in control of the destination. The ones, in short, that depended on the depth of my subject knowledge and the confidence it bestowed.
Just for fun, go and sit in the classroom of a teacher without the requisite subject knowledge. Marvel at the abundance of factual errors and gasp with delight as s/he doesn’t, say, excavate the subtext of a poem to the depth that widens eyes and illuminates lightbulbs. Students can spot the teachers who really know their stuff and can communicate that fact. It’s evident in the respect they accord them, and the trust with which they will follow their apparently tangential leads, the scent of excitement and a little bit of wee piquing the air. Poor subject knowledge is to intellectual ambition what a bald man is to tonsorial experimentation.
There is no inversely proportional relationship between academic achievement and ability to teach so, please, let’s stop almost-peddling that tired myth. Education is, quite simply, far too important to be left to anyone with less than excellent subject knowledge and top-notch teaching skills, both of which may be evinced by fantastic qualifications.
Last employer – how are you doin’?