Prof. Philip Booth is Editorial and Programme Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has spoken out about the use of non-“Qualified Teachers” (NQTs) in schools. I am being somewhat careful with my punctuation and capitalisation to make it absolutely clear that the qualification to which Nick Clegg refers relates to some kind of official status rather than whether somebody is qualified to teach. I will leave aside whether NQTs should be used in academies. The arguments are slightly different, though I would still side with the right of a head teacher, rather than a politician, to decide such matters.
Before turning to the issue of qualifications, it is worth noting that Nick Clegg also used the same arguments in relation to the national curriculum.
He said: “What’s the point of having a national curriculum if only a few schools have to teach it?” Well, perhaps it is worth asking if we should have a national curriculum at all. However, if we do have one, there is certainly some point in all schools that are controlled directly by the state and local authorities keeping to the same curriculum, but it does not follow that free schools should stick to that curriculum any more than private fee-charging schools should have to. The point about free schools (of which there are only about 200) is that they provide parents with additional choice. Parents – not unreasonably, given the lack of rigour in the national curriculum and given that it is very much oriented towards the median child – might want something different for their children. To the modern “liberal” wanting something different seems to be a crime.
Regarding teaching qualifications, Clegg said: “I also believe every parent needs reassurance that the school their child attends, whatever its title or structure, meets certain core standards of teaching and care. A parental guarantee, if you like.”As it happens, the parent may want that guarantee to come from the head teacher rather than that guarantee coming in a rather roundabout way of requiring all teachers to be licensed by the state. The parent may also be content that the Ofsted process ensures that the state is happy that the school is decent (a quid-pro-quo for state funding) but may not be interested in whether every teacher in that school is “qualified” according to some bureaucratic definition. The parent may want qualities in their child’s teachers that transcend state teaching qualifications. If the state-controlled school wishes, it can put on its gate a big notice stating: “all our teachers are certified as qualified by the state”. Meanwhile, the free school can put up a big notice saying: “Our ancient Greek teacher is not certified as qualified by the state, but he is one of the leading teachers in the country and, in any case, try finding a state school that teaches ancient Greek at all.”
Economists do not like using anecdotes as evidence, so this one should be treated more as a parable. My wife has taught French for most of the last 25 years. For the first half of her career she taught in a grammar school with the top 20 per cent of the ability range. She would spend much of the week teaching Oxbridge candidates Balzac. Returning to teaching after having children, she had Nick Clegg’s required qualification. However, she did not get the first job for which she applied in a local primary school because her experience was clearly unsuitable for the job. She might have been okay at the job. However, there was a better qualified candidate but who did not, as far as I know, have “Qualified” teacher status. It was perfectly clear to my wife that the other candidate was more suitable.
Meanwhile, for the last six years or so, my wife has taught in primary schools in French clubs (age 4-11) where parents pay separately and, it has to be said, are very discerning about whether they are getting good value for money. She has also taught similar age groups in church catechism classes. This year, she has started working part time at a local primary school in a very similar job for the one for which she applied seven years ago. Unquestionably, it is her recent experience with young people that was regarded as relevant (as well as the fact that she is a French speaker, of course). Through some quirks, she seems to be hired on the non-qualified teacher scale (it is hard to work these things out as they are so complicated) but she would jump Nick Clegg’s hurdle due to her (largely irrelevant) secondary school experience.
But, who is to take these decisions? Some state school heads have class teachers teach modern languages (which are becoming a requirement at primary level) who have absolutely no experience speaking the language at all. This is absolutely astonishing – but, according to Clegg it is okay. When it comes to the process of a free school choosing a teacher – especially for a specialist subject – it is the people on the ground who are in the best position to determine what combination of ability, different types of experience (years spent teaching, working with different age groups, practical experience and so on), formal academic qualifications and formal teaching qualifications best suit the position. The idea that this information can be centralised and decisions taken at central government level about such matters should be anathema to anybody who is a member of a party with the word “liberal” in its name.
Indeed, if there were a national qualification body that determined who should be able to call themselves a “liberal” then I am quite sure that Nick Clegg would not qualify.