Euan McColm: Can fast-track teachers raise standards?

At first glance, it's a bold plan to solve a seemingly intractable problem.

John Swinney with pupils from Bannerman High School, Baillieston, as they received their exam results last Tuesday. Picture: John Devlin

An ongoing shortage of teachers – particularly in rural areas – in key subjects such as science, maths and technology has been a source of considerable frustration for staff, parents and pupils. For First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, whose frequently stated desire that she and the Scottish Government should be judged by the standard of their stewardship of the education system, these staff shortages are the stuff of political misery; opposition politicians, quite rightly, return to the subject, again and again.

And so the suggestion – in a briefing to Scottish Education Secretary John Swinney – that trainee teachers might start working in Scottish schools after a summer school course lasting just five weeks, certainly resembles some kind of solution.

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The proposal from the educational charity Teach First would see high-performing graduates offered the chance to enter the classroom without the hassle of spending a year getting their teaching certificate; the idea goes that by making it easier for the brightest and best to become teachers, more of them will consider doing so.

What’s not to love about this? Who wouldn’t want their kids being taught maths by the fiercely intelligent owner of a first class degree in the subject? Who isn’t even just a little bit thrilled by the idea of dynamic young intellectual powerhouses striding into secondaries and shaking things up?

Those in favour of the Teach First model argue that not only would it plug those staffing gaps, it would also drive up standards. These fast-tracked teachers simply must be better than those who have followed the traditional, work-experience-heavy route into the profession, mustn’t they?

Fans of Teach First assume a lot.

The reality, however, may not live up to expectations.

Let us, for the sake of argument and good manners, entertain the idea that not all new teachers are members of the last resort gang; let’s imagine that most are dedicated and ambitious, at least until the reality of underfunded schools and comparatively crappy pay beats that out of them.

Having decided to enter the profession, these graduates sign up for 36 weeks of full-time study. Half of their time is spent on placements in two different schools.

By the end of the academic year, these teachers have invaluable classroom experience. They have been allowed to make mistakes in schools at which they’re unlikely to end up working, and they have been given time to ask themselves whether teaching is really for them.

I am not at all certain how an especially good degree would mean an individual could skip this crucial training period. Five weeks in a lecture hall simply cannot prepare a fledgling teacher for the challenging work ahead in the way that months of on-the-job training can. I don’t care how many degrees you’ve got – none of your achievements in exams says you’re ready to take on a room full of 14-year-olds.

Those with experience of Teach First in England raise concerns. One senior teacher points out to me that the lack of classroom experience among fast-tracked entrants means more work in terms of monitoring and mentoring. A super bright trainee who has limited practical experience and little knowledge of how to go about structuring classes and ensuring pupils are constantly engaged might fill a vacancy, but whether they are ready to do so is unclear.

The Teach First programme encourages graduates to give some time to education before, perhaps, going on to whatever other career they may have planned. Why not enhance your patchy CV with two years teaching in a school on the wrong side of town?

Frustrated as parents may be by the quality of some existing teachers, is the answer to bring on board new staff who aren’t fully committed to the profession?

And how, I wonder, does creating this elite class of teachers help lift morale among those already in post? How are those drudges who devoted a year of their lives to training supposed to feel about these johnny-come-latelies?

There is a crisis in Scottish education. Standards in numeracy and literacy are shamefully – shamefully – low, and staff shortages have seen at least one head teacher send out an SOS to parents, asking if any might be available to plug gaps in the rota.

The Teach First scheme doesn’t begin to get to the underlying problem of why too few graduates are currently willing to consider teaching as a career.

If you have a child in a state sector school, you may have some idea of why the job looks so very unappealing to many. Underfunding means stories of teachers working with limited basic resources – such as, say, textbooks – are quite commonplace.

And while we might enjoy teasing teacher friends about their endless holidays, we can’t escape the fact that they are paid relatively poorly for extremely demanding work. A long summer holiday might just about compensate for night after night of marking and classroom prep, but it does no more than that.

Teach First would not even be on the table as an option if the education system was in better health.

Swinney – by some distance the Scottish Government’s most impressive minister – was given the education brief because of its crucial importance. But, talented though he undoubtedly is, he is no miracle worker. While schools remain underfunded and teachers underpaid, he will struggle to reverse the slide in standards that leaves so many young Scots unprepared for the worlds of work and higher education.

Politicians need to make good teachers feel more valued, and to make it easier for head teachers to get rid of bad ones, and they need to ensure our schools are properly resourced. This, surely, is simple stuff that even an idiot who had to spend a year qualifying to teach can grasp.

Teach First may, indeed, be the solution to the crisis in our schools. I remain to be convinced.