A University Degree does not a Teacher make

Published by Daily Mail

Teacher degreeAccording to the latest national statistics on School Workforce produced by the Department for Education, a third of teachers of Physics, Geography and German have no qualification higher than an A-level in those subjects. Over the past year, the number of teachers with a relevant post A-level qualification has declined across the board, reaching 55.3 per cent of teachers of Religious Education; 53.1 per cent of teachers of Spanish; and 27.1 per cent of Maths teachers. Around 25 percent of teachers of Chemistry, History and French have no degrees in those subjects, while for English and PE it is around 20 per cent.

Such statistics invariably elicit concerns that our children are not being properly taught, or, at least manifestly not being taught be subject specialists. This leads to the tediously predictable headlines that our teachers are, at best, under-qualified or, at worst, incompetent. And, at a time of recruitment impossibilities in some subjects, there have been calls to restrict schools’ use of non-specialist teachers, with allegations of parents being ‘hoodwinked’ into believing their children’s teachers are experts in their subjects, while all along they know no more than they read in the pages of The Guardian.

I have a problem with all this. After two decades in the teaching profession, having managed departments and faculties and being responsible at a senior leadership level for whole-school learning and teaching, I can say with a high degree of empirical certainty that effective teaching has far more to do with the capacity to excite the mind of the child than it has to do with imparting specialist knowledge. Of course, the higher the level of study, the more specialist the teacher should be: I do not advocate a Maths graduate who happens to possess an A-level in French teaching French at A-level (even out of staffing ‘necessity’). But I see no reason at all why an inspirational graduate in any subject should not be deployed to teach at the lower levels, and a good many of them will relish the enhancing opportunity to do so.

I have a number of degrees across the humanities, arts and social sciences, but nothing specifically relating to human or physical geography. I was once asked to cover a Yr7 Geography class for a few weeks, and had a blast explaining the science behind relief rainfall and long-shore drift. I hadn’t touched the subject since O-level (some 20 years earlier), but my diagrams were so detailed that they had fish in the sea and sheep on the hillside. The class loved it. Some years later, when those same children reached Yr11 and came to my Critical Thinking classes, they not only remembered the few weeks I’d spent with them four years earlier, they told me I was the best teacher they’d ever had: an opinion forged by a two-week experience with a theo-political philosopher whose interest in relief rainfall and long-shore drift is about as substantial as matter in the Higgs boson.

It really doesn’t matter if the teacher is not ‘subject qualified’ to teach certain topics at the level of Key stage 3 or 4: what matters is that the teacher can engage, entertain (in the true meaning of the word) and inspire those children to want to learn. Of course, this is not applicable across the board: all children require specialist teaching at a certain level or their learning will be compromised. It would be a manifest educational deficiency to put a non-musician before a music class for a prolonged period, or a non-linguist before a Spanish class for any period. This is so obvious that it scarcely needs articulating. But an outstanding teacher can engage children most effectively in any subject, certainly up to GCSE. Thereafter, it is beyond dispute that a Physics graduate could teach A-level Maths; a Biology graduate could prove a most effective teacher of A-level Chemistry. But a professional sportsman or woman could accomplish in a few hours what a thousand graduates in Sports Science will never achieve in a lifetime of pedagogical dedication.

A BA (Hons) in History does not make a good teacher of history any more than an NPQH makes an incompetent headteacher even half-way decent. The certification of attainment is no assurance at all of an ability to impart knowledge, administrate an institution, or manage people. Did Arthur Chipping (Goodbye, Mr Chips) succeed at Brookfield because he could recite Caesar’s Gallic Wars backwards, or because he learned how to listen, empathise and connect with the boys he taught? Did John Keating (Dead Poets [no apostrophe] Society) inspire a true love of poetry in his students by earning a PGCE, or by tearing up an arid syllabus and exhorting his students to think for themselves? Did Glen Holland (Mr Holland’s Opus) need a music degree? How would Miss Jean Brodie respond to a critical Ofsted report which queried her subject knowledge?

Teaching is not about the expert scholar full of knowledge decanting facts into the empty vessel of childhood: it is, or ought to be, as Plato says, concerned with turning the eyes of children to the light in order that they might see for themselves. The ability to inspire precedes knowledge, and that knowledge is virtually worthless in a classroom without the ability to hold the thoughts and attention of distracted and hormone-charged children and teenagers.

It is said that pupils taught by staff who lack sufficient knowledge risk being ‘turned off’ certain subjects. And that is undoubtedly true. But it is equally true that you get very poor teachers with first class degrees, and children will feel cheated as he (or she) drones on and on about nothing they can make much sense of.

I happen to know a first class English teacher whose degree is in Classics, and his students love him. I also know a first class RE teacher whose degree is in Maths, and his exam results in RE have exceeded those of his ‘subject qualified’ colleagues. I know a teacher with a degree in Business Studies who teaches A-level and IB Economics, and someone with a degree in German who teaches A-level and IB Russian. In each and every case, their exam results are among the highest. Why? Because it is manifestly true that so many of the skills acquired in graduate study are transferrable: I have no degree in English, but have taught King Lear at A-level (and all my students got As). I can do this not only because Shakespeare is something of a personal passion, but also because it isn’t possible to study for degrees in the humanities and social sciences without acquiring collateral knowledge of history, law, language, literature and the arts, along with the requisite skills in content and textual analysis.

I happen to agree with those who believe it to be essential that teachers have expertise in their subjects. But such expertise is not limited to certification: if it were, Tony Blair could hardly have taken up a position lecturing in Politics at Harvard when his BA is limited to Jurisprudence. And who would bother listening to Margaret Thatcher droning on about Statecraft when her BSc (second class) is in Chemistry? And yet many will sit at their feet, because they have qualification way beyond a framed degree.

The teacher should be an expert, but expertise comes in a number of guises. When teaching ceases to inspire, the learning ceases to engage. When the learning ceases to engage, little or nothing is learned. What schools desperately need are outstanding teachers with a sense of vocation: ten of those liberated to draw out children’s faculties and intelligences will eclipse a hundred who have been certified and licensed by the state to impart a centralised curriculum in accordance with government guidelines for the sake of targets and league tables.