Published by ConservativeHome
“You haven’t even got a degree, you’ve got the shakes, and you think you’re God’s gift to teaching,” grunts Algy Herries, Headmaster of Bamfylde Boys’ School, in the TV adaptation of RF Delderfield’s First World War novel To Serve Them All My Days. “I take my hat off to you, I really do. You’ve got your work cut out, but there’s nothing like starting with ambition,” he reassures.
I watched this TV series while I was taking my O-levels, and read the book soon afterwards. It is, to my mind, one of greatest novels of the 20th century. The aspiring teacher is Second Lieutenant David Powlett-Jones, a nervy coalminer’s son from South Wales who has been invalided out of the army with shell-shock. His passion is history; his vocation – he eventually discovers – is pedagogy.
But he’s not qualified. And not only does he lack ‘Qualified Teacher Status’, he doesn’t even have a degree in generic education theory, let alone a specialist subject. No degree, no experience, and he hails from a Welsh mining village. This public-school Headmaster takes a considerable risk employing Mr Powlett-Jones, but heck, there’s a war on, and needs must. Herries charms his wary wife into trusting his instinct, but it isn’t long before an entire staffroom of fully-qualified curmudgeons are snootily looking down their noses at this young pretender.
One of them insists that history is a “dry subject”, concerned with little more than memorising tedious dates. “I don’t think so,” retorts Powlett-Jones, before he realises: “Well, I haven’t tried teaching it yet. But I should have thought that if you can get the boys interested in asking themselves why things happen the way they do, and if they have to happen that way, and if there might not be some alternative, surely it’s possible to capture their imagination, isn’t it?”
“Surely it’s possible” is the prayerful entreaty of all teachers since Melchizedek instructed Abram in the Torah. The staffroom scoffs at the upstart, but it doesn’t take Powlett-Jones long to stamp his authority on the Lower Fourth. He had no experience of teaching at all – except showing recruits how to look after themselves and not to get shot in their first week, which I guess is a ‘transferrable skill’ in modern educational parlance. But he soon earns the boys’ respect by sharing his real-life experiences with them – the harrowing bombs and bullets; the squelch and slap of the trenches; the trauma of watching a generation being blown to kingdom come.
Powlett-Jones was not qualified with certificates, degrees or diplomas, but was eminently qualified by life experience. His authenticity made him interesting to his pupils, and their respect naturally followed. Those boys who once faked epileptic fits in class and guffawed at his working-class dialect are transformed and captivated by a master story-teller. But his teaching colleagues shun him, even questioning his competence to teach: he is, quite simply, too liberally challenging of the conservative status quo.
Instead of sticking to GM Trevelyan’s account of the Civil War, Powlett-Jones rejects the constraints of the curriculum and teaches the causes and consequences of the war they’re currently fighting: he opens a window to the past by linking it to the present, viewing a centuries-old conflict through the power-prism of current affairs. And as the father of one of his pupils is killed in action, Powlett-Jones shares their tears and heartbreak. He is a naturally gifted pastor – he loves children.
QTS doesn’t teach these skills or bestow such qualities, any more than a first-class degree inculcates character virtue. In fact, as I’ve written before, neither QTS nor a BA (Hons) amount to any evidence at all of the primary qualification to teach – the ability to excite and inspire young minds, as all the best teachers can. The mediocre and poor – or Ofsted’s ‘satisfactory’ – will tend toward the mechanical and general. But the good and outstanding will cultivate individuality. And they will view learning as a life-long pursuit, because the best teachers will always be educating themselves as well as their students. Knowledge isn’t capped at the Bachelor’s level; it must be constantly challenged and enhanced by wide-reading and formal assessment, preferably leading to a Master’s degree.
That’s what the current ‘Qualified Teacher’ dispute completely misses. Of course, if you conduct a poll which asks a thousand parents whether they would like their children to be taught by qualified teachers, the answer will be ‘Yes’. But the fact that Tristram Hunt hails this as evidence in support of Labour’s policy to make QTS mandatory shows how crass the debate has become: if you don’t agree with this manifest ‘common sense’, you’re an idiot at best, or anti-professionalism and anti-education at worst.
But what do we mean by ‘qualified’? Is the status acquired through subject specialism or by studying pedagogical psychology? By memorising Ofsted assessment frameworks or learning how to rummage through a child’s lunchbox to confiscate crisps? How does QTS – which may be gained through a variety of routes, from attending a university course to an on-the-job production of a portfolio – constitute evidence of competence in the classroom?
I would estimate that about 90 per cent of the road to QTS is a fusion somewhere between educational general knowledge, pedagogical common sense and corporate cooperation. The rest could be (and often is) acquired through effective teacher-training days and feedback on formal classroom observations. But provision is patchy and variable. Some PGCE students will be steeped in the rigours of Vygotsky’s biosocial theory and de Bono’s ‘Thinking Hats’, while their GTP counterparts may have a very friendly mentor and half-a-dozen helpful colleagues who are prepared to write supportive testimonials. But both will fly to QTS because the qualification is state-designed for success. In reality, it can amount to little more than a ‘certificate of attendance’ at a programme of training. Indeed, I’d imagine that about as many trainee teachers have failed to attain QTS as the GTC ever expelled from the profession for incompetence.
Would Powlett-Jones have been employed in the classroom if the Great War had not restricted the teaching talent pool? I think it depends very much on the headteacher. But in the contemporary context, where we’re short of thousands of Maths and Physics teachers, I’m at loss to know why a university professor with a PhD should be obliged to sit a GCSE in Maths simply to tick a bureaucratic box. Who would you rather be taught by? An inspirational physicist with an Ivy League PhD or a ‘satisfactory’ teacher with that all-important QTS? (This isn’t a theoretical scenario, by the way: it really happened).
I’ll leave you with one final thought on teaching qualifications. It comes from another TV programme – Educating Yorkshire – which followed the daily lives of staff and pupils at Thornhill Community Academy near Dewsbury. It was compulsive viewing for educational geeks and gurus alike. The nation was reduced to tears listening to the testimony of 16-year-old student Musharaf Asghar, who endured years of bullying and distress because of a debilitating stammer. Speech therapy didn’t help; psychological counselling offered no remedy.
It was ultimately thanks to the pedagogical skill and pastoral tenacity of English teacher Mr Burton that Mushy, as he likes to be called, found his voice. Matthew Burton has been worthily lauded for his dedication by fellow teachers, school leaders, educational academics, the teaching unions and politicians in Parliament, including Tristram Hunt.
Mr Burton was himself inspired to experiment on Mushy with the same audio therapy used in the film The King’s Speech. What a pity that even a historian of the eminent standing of Tristram Hunt failed to acknowledge the fact that King George VI’s stammer was cured by Lionel Logue, an actor who had used his unorthodox phonological methods on shell-shocked soldiers, like David Powlett-Jones, returning from the trenches during the First World War.
Logue’s vocational inspiration is undisputed; his achievements beyond question. And he didn’t have a teaching qualification or therapy diploma to his name.