Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Publishing teachers' details: good intention, awful idea

If you haven't read the news story, the Government is planning to make state schools publicly publish details about their teachers (Telegraph) including: salaries, qualifications (A-Levels and degrees), and time taken off sick. The premise behind this is one I support: giving parents more information and choice when they come to pick a school for their children, but the idea is just awful.

The first is that kids are horrible. Start releasing statistics about what qualifications teachers have, or how much they're paid, or how much time they took off sick, and all hell could break loose. The chances are it won't name which teachers have which qualifications, or who earns what, but children like games - including the guessing game. Imagine this scenario if you will. Students know all about these newly-released statistics. There's a big long list of teachers with 1st degrees, 2.1s, and 2.2s. Then there's one with a third. The guessing game begins. "Miiisss, what degree did you get?" "Sirrr, did you fail at Uni?" Perhaps I'm generalising, but you get the picture. If children are already acting like little numpties in a lesson, this just gives them more ammunition, a chance to start undermining the teacher, claiming they're the one with the third on their degree, or the one who is paid less because they're an NQT or "because you're rubbish". Of course, teachers don't need to tell students they're the one, but at some point these kinds of things are likely to come out, and that teacher who did get their third on his degree, or a D on one of his A-Levels gets worn down over time with the babble of students pondering whether they've got "Mr moron for maths", or "English with the idiot next." God help any teacher whose students find out they're the one. "Why do we have to listen to you, sir? You failed your degree".  "Why do you get paid so little?" etc. etc. Teachers will naturally want to defend themselves against such accusations if they fear they're losing the respect of their students. If they refuse to answer, they'll look like they're not answering because they're ashamed of the answer. The truth about the one is likely to come out eventually, leaving him embarrassed and with many classes which don't respect him.

Even more embarrassing for teachers would be reference to their salaries. This would be especially dangerous if the information is published separately for the staff in each department, making it much easier for students to begin guessing who gets paid more and who is obviously a newbie at the bottom of the pay scale. Even if these awful visions of students wearing their teachers down by asking them about their qualifications, or their salary, or their time off sick don't come to fruition, it still shifts the balance away from teachers towards students. It gives them a sense of power over the teacher, adding to this sense of entitlement and rights which seems to have become endemic. (I have fond memories of year 9 Geography with  a legendary teacher who once said: "You're always being told about your rights. In this classroom, you have no rights." A man of quiet genius and much experience. Oh, Mr M, come back to us.)

It's not just the kids. I'm also pondering whether parents would begin to get concerned that their little angels are being taught by someone with a third. I can see them marching into the headmaster's office, demanding to know who this teacher is so that their dear little Danny doesn't have to be taught by this useless oaf. We seem to be looking at teaching the wrong way. Great teachers don't necessarily have to have been top of their class at Uni. It's not about sheer academic ability, but ability to communicate, to explain, to help, to be patient, to inspire, to impassion. Teachers can have  fantastic knowledge, passion, and flair for their subject without needing a piece of paper to prove it. Sometimes the people with the best academic qualifications just wouldn't make good teachers; they may lack the ability to make a dull topic interesting, or the patience to keep explaining the same thing over and over until the struggling student understands it. We should not be putting the emphasis on degree qualifications. Make it all about blind academics, and we risk losing the passion, with teachers feeling that they can't pursue the career for fear of being academically inferior to their colleagues. Schools may also become fearful of employing new teachers who are clearly skilled and driven, but whose academic qualifications do not match those of others. Currently, it's not a big problem: the all-round strongest person for the job can be employed, but if parents begin to judge schools on a list of the qualifications of the staff, it's quite possible schools will seek to employ only those with outstanding degrees, having to put it above the actual ability of teacher to teach in order to stand out from other schools.

I'm also failing to understand why it's a good idea in any way shape or form to publish teachers salaries. I can at least see why the qualifications of teachers might be used by parents to judge a school's quality, but in what way to salaries matter? Personally, I wouldn't spend my afternoon comparing two schools on the criteria of "Which school offers the best value for money?", and draw up some formula to calculate points on the basis of salary, qualifications, and time taken off sick. Perhaps that's something Conservatives do in their spare time, but I don't imagine it being useful for anyone for any reason except simply being nosey. Why do any parents need to know how long teachers take off in sick leave? If a student's education is being disrupted by a teacher's illness, then absolutely a parent is right to be concerned and make their concerns known, but if it's an issue, they'll know about it at the time - they won't need to wait until the end of the year, see that someone took 4 weeks off sick, and then rush into school demanding that this teacher pull themselves together. This really does seem to be all about assessing teachers on the basis of value for money, but teaching is one of those rare jobs which can't be assessed on productivity.

I'm also cynically wondering whether this is all intended to as a measure to get the public angry about the pay of teachers so it can be cut. Parents evening 2012, Mrs Whitehouse exclaims: "How dare you say that about Timmy! I'm paying your wages, don't you know, and handsome wages they are too!" Conservative Conference 2012, David Cameron announces: "I met a black man once, and he told me he was concerned about a lack of efficiency in our schools. Teachers will now be paid on the basis of their efficiency - those with higher qualifications and who take less time off sick will be paid more. After all, we're all in this together in the Big Society." He'll then end with a heartwarming tale of a little girl called Niamh who was shocked, shocked! by how much teachers in those awful, awful state schools are costing the Government, and she sent her toothfairy  money to help pay the bill. "Thank you, Niamh, he'll say. But we don't need you to do that anymore." And the party conference audience will applaud and chortle and slap their knees, wishing their daughter was as dedicated to the Big Society as little Niamh.

(Based on a true story)

Anyway.

Another concern is that we put even more people off becoming teachers. Would you really want to go into teaching knowing you're being judged on your qualifications by the parents of each new academic year's intake? Doing something like this sends off all the wrong signals, seeming to treat the classroom like a company's boardroom, evaluating the value-for-money of teachers as opposed to their teaching ability.

My sister is a teacher. I'll be seeing her tomorrow when she comes around for din-dins. I'm sure she'll have something to say about this. It may require some beeps to cover the profanities when I report back here.

All-in-all, there don't actually seem to be any positives to this idea. I understand - and agree with - giving parents more choice and information - but these are just pointless statistics which devalue teachers and try to simplify their jobs into three numbers. If the Government wants to make education better, it should be looking at providing options for disruptive pupils who hate traditional academic education to go and do something more appropriate - like a college course or an apprenticeship - instead of forcing them to keep going somewhere they hate until they're 16, doing nothing but disrupting everyone else. The education system will not suddenly become better by publishing a few meaningless numbers. If anything, it will damage student-teacher relations and teacher morale, and put good people off of the profession.
Niamh

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