Cameron thinks elitism will fix education

The Conservatives think they can improve education in this country by making the teaching profession “brazenly elitist” but it looks like they haven’t done their homework. David Cameron’s latest wheeze would actually exclude Carol Vorderman, the Tories’ own Maths Taskforce chief.

David Cameron made a speech today at a south London school, outlining Conservative pledges:

The Tory leader said he wanted to make teaching the “noble profession” and would bar students with a poor degree from taking government cash to train for the classroom.

And in what was almost certainly a conscious echo of Labour rhetoric, Mr Cameron said: “Good education is the right of the many not the privileged few.”

Michael Gove, the Shadow Education Secretary, went further in confronting head on claims that the Conservatives’ policies favour the better off.

An incoming Conservative government would be guided by a “moral purpose” to make opportunity more equal, he said, adding that it was a ‘scandal’ only 79 boys in receipt of free school meals achieved three ‘A’s at A-level nationwide compared with 175 pupils from Eton alone.

“It’s a scar on our conscience and we are pledged to reverse it,” said Mr Gove.[Times]

However, “breaking open the supply of education” won’t be achieved by discouraging graduates with lower classes of degree.

The Think Politics blog has some interesting thoughts:

Quite apart from whether Mr Cameron can find enough Maths graduates with a good degree to fill schools’ recruitment needs, an important question must be asked: does it matter?

In fact, Mr Cameron is wasting his time. A degree, or the quality of a degree, is no better at predicting a person’s likelihood of success as a teacher than the colour of that person’s hair.

The piece goes on to quote Malcolm Gladwell, writing for the New Yorker:

In teaching, the implications are… profound. They suggest that we shouldn’t be raising standards. We should be lowering them, because there is no point in raising standards if standards don’t track with what we care about. Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree—and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before… It needs an apprenticeship system that allows candidates to be rigorously evaluated.

Paul Waugh at the Evening Standard points out:

Under the Gove plan, only the highest calibre graduates should be given state funding to become teachers. Those with anything less than a 2:2 would be barred from a new high-flyers recruitment scheme.

Unfortunately, a quick bit of research shows that Carol Vorderman – Mr Cameron’s prized Maths Taskforce chief – didn’t do all that well when she studied engineering at Cambridge. She got a third class degree.

Looks like poor old Carol doesn’t measure up to the demands of her favourite party.

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  • Martin Land 18th Jan '10 - 9:52pm

    More superficial nonsense from the Tories… Do infant school teachers need Firsts? Of course not. Do AS and A2 teachers need MA’s. Why not, if at all possible. Equally an enthusiastic student teacher with a 2:2 is far more useful than a failed city careerist with a 2:1 who sees teaching as some sort of easy option.

    If the Tories want to improve standards of entrants into the teacher profession, they could try to use their own capitalist methodology and improve pay… It’s called supply and demand isn’t it?

  • I notice that we rush to say that people with 2:1s are not on average better teachers. What evidence to we have for that? I accept that Cameron/Gove may have no more evidence to the contrary, but perhaps this is a big unknown. I think that the real scandal is that Britain make no effort to use all the data from exams to find out what works at the teacher level (and to sack those who are really poor).

    And they are not asking Vorderman to be a teacher, so her third is a bit beside the point. We also used to give out a lot more thirds.

    PS Durham grads will be ok – apparently their history dept now only gives 1sts and 2:1s!

  • Martin Land has hit the nail on the head. In order to attract people with 1st class degrees into teaching, it will be necessary to pay 1st class money, but I don’t think Cameron is proposing to do that.

    The only sector of the school system that Cameron knows anything about or gives a monkey’s about is the upper stratum of the independent sector. To guys like Cameron, everyone outside the upper and upper-middle classes is scum.

  • Subject knowledge has very little to do with what makes people a good teacher. Obviously they need to be able to understand their subject but I reckon there is no difference between an 1st and 3rd class degree holders ability to understand their subject at the level taught in schools

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Jan '10 - 10:02am

    It should obviously be left to those recruiting for teacher training, and those recruiting the successfully trained teachers who they decide to pick. Isn’t this sort of “government knows better than the people doing the job” stuff what Cameron, on other occasions, opposes? Isn’t this just the sort of stupid “must do something” initiative which we have seen so often from New Labour, and seen the damage it causes? Isn’t this sort of thing just why people are turning against Labour?

    On entrance qualifications, having done university admissions, I know how it works – you lower the bar until the number of people you get coming to you and not going elsewhere fits the number of places you have to fill. If the bar is set at a rigid level you run the danger of being left half empty. You will generally advertised the required qualifications as slightly higher than you are really going to take at because that creates a good image. If someone is below the quoted qualification requirement, you will (if you are doing the job conscientiously as I was), look at other aspects to see if they indicate suitability or not for the course. The crude setting of a fixed qualification limit is just stupid and doesn’t work.

  • I agree with the general thrust of Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article, something I coincidently happened across a couple of weeks ago. Training appears to be a key issue. Someone who recently started to teach in primary education in London told me that on his first day on the job he saw one child stab a pen through another’s hand. The fact that your dissertation provided some rather interesting nuggets of novel thought about the real purpose of the Schlieffen Plan is hardly going to make the difference for you in that situation. It’s the old politician cry of wanting to attract “the best and the brightest”. In reality, the best are not always the brightest.

    Also, I know it’s a cheap old Labour-style point to make, and I only throw it out there to be savaged, but I would suggest that the ongoing failure of the Conservatives to understand education policy is because so many of those involved with the policy team went to posh schools.

    Rather than just dismiss this elitism out of hand though, Tim Leunig is right to call for statistical evidence to prove this either way. However, the danger he failed to mention (although I’m sure he is aware of this) is the need in any statistical analysis to differentiate between the types of schools which attract people with different degrees. (Sorry that’s a clumsy sentence!) I would imagine that schools in wealthy areas attract more 1sts than sink schools in Peckham or Clifton. Therefore the statistics couldn’t be a simple case of “people with 1sts get x% more As at GCSE”, but a much more complicated formula. In fact, I’m personally doubtful that even comparing added value would enable a fair comparison to be made, as I’ve doubts over the correct weighting.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 19th Jan '10 - 10:54am

    “And they are not asking Vorderman to be a teacher, so her third is a bit beside the point.”

    Surely the point about Vorderman is that it’s ludicrous to appoint someone as an adviser on the teaching of mathematics because she’s famous for doing mental arithmetic on a game show.

    An extreme example of the “dumbing-down” of politics.

  • Liberal Neil 19th Jan '10 - 11:34am

    whelan & tim – there are a whole host of issues in correlating teachers’ qualifications with their pupils’ results.

    Pupils are usually taught by a series of teachers in different subjects. How do you know which of those teachers influenced their results? A pupil who had excellent teaching at primary school may get a better result in GSCE History as a result, even if their GCSE History teacher was below par.

  • Thanks Liberal Neil, I suspected as much.

    I have to agree with Alix about how experience will make a difference over time. The problem with this is of course is that those pupils who are subjected to the inexperienced teacher (who may improve later) will inevitably suffer. We need to ensure that teachers can hit the ground running. I’ve no doubt that NQTs do get support, but do they need more? Or longer training? Or a smaller timetable, but one where they also spend more time in the classes of more experienced teachers? Or should they have to serve as TAs first?

  • Also, while i’m thinking about it, this commitment is a huge hostage to fortune:
    “any school that is in special measures for more than a year will be taken over immediately by a successful Academy provider.”

    Indeed, it is a policy which will be contradicted by this:
    “we will break down barriers to entry so that any good education provider can set up a new Academy school –
    free, non-selective, high-quality state schools that are open to all.”

    To go back to Peckham, let’s say an academy provider starts up. Academy schools succeed because they attract better pupils. It can’t be proven that they select pupils, but many ask all applying parents to come to school for a chat with the new head teacher. Some turn up, some don’t. Some pupils, guess which, manage to get in. You’ve damaged the other schools in the area, dragging resources and decent pupils away from the other schools. So some of those sink schools get put into special measures. But they can’t improve fast enough in the short term. 6 months is a short time to turn a school around. So you offer those schools up for academy purchase. But the prime real estate – the good pupils – have been taken already by the existing academy school.

    Which established academy operator in its right mind is going to bid to run a school like that?

  • Edit – Sorry 1 year/6 months discrepancy.

  • None of this matters a jot until the real issue is tackled – classroom discipline.

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