Living and working as I do in Oxford, I am not surprised about the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission findings, published today, about the importance of private schools in the education of those at the top of many career ladders. These universities, and others in disciplines not addressed by Oxford and Cambridge, will always turn out those likely to become the leaders in their chosen fields.
The debate sparked by this fairly commonplace research, but nevertheless worthwhile as a reminder of the real world, has been mostly about how to create access to these universities for a wider group of students? Both Oxford and Cambridge are now creating schemes to take more pupils from a wider range of backgrounds than when the present leaders in society were heading for university all those years ago.
However, for me, the key issue remains the need to provide enough teachers all of whom are inspiring for all pupils in our schools. To further the Oxford theme, BMW don’t want to produce any sub-standard cars at their Cowley plant, and they put in place quality assurance mechanisms to prevent that happening. Politicians on the other hand don’t view schooling in the same way. Parents are required to educate their children, but if they trust the State to undertake that education, there is no guarantee of quality or even, as recent data about pupils with special education needs has revealed, a guarantee of a school place.
One issue that I have raised consistently over the past two decades is that of the credentials that teachers need in order to teach. For teachers in the secondary sector, subject knowledge, a knowledge of pedagogy, and the ability to marry the two together, are, in my view, vital in allowing teachers to teach their subject, especially as it become more complex to understand and explain.
However, governments of all persuasions have continued to remain satisfied with a minimum standard that allows those with Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) to teach anything to anyone of any age in schools. Indeed, thanks to Michael Gove, you don’t even need to have that basic qualification to teach in most state-funded secondary schools these days, and teachers trained in a range of different countries have automatic right to obtain QTS.
Is this minimum standard, with no requirement to keep it up to date during a teacher’s career, still acceptable in the 21st century? Well, it allows Ministers to talk of record teacher numbers, not of record shortages of teachers equipped to teach physics, business studies or many aspects of design and technology.
This lack of respect for parents and children by a state system that is not staffed by teachers knowledgeable in their subject lies behind a large part of why some children, however able, cannot reach our top universities.
A labour market based upon open competition, with schools increasingly setting their own pay rates, favours schools with access to more funds. These nearly always aren’t the schools in the most deprived areas: those schools also lack access to the same degree of parental funding and support, whether through direct monthly cash payments or by parents paying for private tuition that help keep up a school’s outcomes.