Monday, January 18, 2010

The Schools Manifesto, some thoughts

Today’s announcement by the Conservatives has been trailed as the publication of their draft manifesto on education, but it is actually an announcement of their plans for schools. Further and Higher education and the recent decimation of the Higher Education budget hasn’t been mentioned.

What is contained is interesting though. Coverage of it began with leaking that the policies contained with the manifesto would be “brazenly elitist”. Queue much complaining from the  left, and taking issue with that word. This has led to Creative Tory pointing out that there’s nothing wrong with saying something will be elitist and pulling out a great west Wing Quote to explain it:

“Elite is a good word, it means well above average. I’d ask them what their problem is with excellence.” – Jed Bartlet

What the conservative’s are really trying to say is that teaching should become elite, teachers should be the elite, they should be the best people around, such as is found in countries like Sweden and Finland , where a quarter of all people see it as the profession of choice.

This is right but a challenge to do, the way they want to do it is to say that only the academically strongest (a 2:1 or higher at degree level) will be able to enter the profession and that if you have a 2:1 or a first  in maths or sciences then you will have your student loan paid off.

Setting academic entry standards for a profession is a slightly questionable approach as being academically good enough to obtain a higher level degree doesn’t translate you to being able to teach very well? What matters is that teacher training becomes more relevant to teaching and not more academic. By all means use academic standards as a way to select the best and brightest but don’t require the education to continue to be overly academic. The government has recently moved to make all teacher training masters level, which is totally irellevant to teaching children and just means that teaching students must write 3 essays to a master’s level on teaching theory. I do hope that Conservative plans will resolve this, although I don’t believe it’s mentioned in the manifesto.

Ultimately though this approach to improving teaching standards is very different to that taken by the government. The last decade has been about decreasing class sizes and increasing teacher (or teaching assistant) numbers. Ultimately with the belief that the better the teacher student ratio the better the output.

The problem is that if we want to make teaching the elite then there has to be a scarcity of teachers, by it’s very nature there is not an endless pool of elite candidates. A transformation of the teaching profession along a similar vein has happened in Finland and has actually led to higher class sizes, because there just aren’t enough high quality teachers to go around. However this hasn’t affected teaching quality or student attainment at all.

Ultimately larger class sizes are only an issue if you have poorer quality teachers but in a middle England that is almost as obssessed with little Jimmy’s class size as they are with the price of their house would this be acceptable?

Update: Don't forget that you can ask David Cameron a question and vote for hte questions he will be asked at

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