Why the Tories’ education policy is backwards

So the Tories have announced their education policy which is, by their own admission, “brazenly elitist”. It seems that criticising the Conservatives is almost all I do these days, but this one is particularly worth it.

Since when has elitism been praiseworthy? Well, I suppose that depends. Wiktionary – the dictionary of choice for today’s on-the-go Comment Editor – offers two definitions of elitism. The first one is, “The belief that a society or system should be run by an elite.” If we take ‘elite’ simply to mean ‘the best’, then I suppose this is desirable: clearly we want our nation’s children to be taught by the best teachers possible. The other definition, however, is, “The superior attitude or behaviour associated with an elite.” It is this which I fear will permeate the practical application of the Tory education policy.

I am going to take a moment to do something I haven’t done in some time and something that gives me a strange feeling inside (guilt, maybe?), and that is to praise some aspects of a Conservative plan. David Cameron is looking to do more to attract high flyers from various professions into the classrooms, and wants to try and expand the number of teachers who specialise in maths and sciences after drops in those taking these subjects beyond GCSE level. How new and original these policies are is debateable; however, they do seem ostensibly to be promising.

Nonetheless, they are overshadowed by the hulking great mistake that is the new ideas on selection I mentioned previously. In order to get help with their funding through teacher training, prospective teachers will have to have gained a second- or first-class honours degree, and those who gained this in maths or science from a “good” university will have help paying off their student loans.

I am currently studying Philosophy and Literature. At school I was good at maths, but never cared about it enough to take it further. It was only in my last few months of GCSE, after I had picked my A level choices, that I got a good teacher who actually made me really interested. What made him good was not the degree he had or the university he had been to – it was the fact that he made a genuine effort to get people engaged with the subject in a way that no teacher ever had for us before. Meanwhile I’ve seen graduates from top universities struggle to firstly control a class and secondly maintain its interest.

It is these skills that we need to be encouraging; while out and out academic knowledge is important, it is nothing compared to the importance of adequate communication, excitement about your field, the ability to control a class without too much discipline but the capacity to discipline if necessary. Christine Blower of the NUT is especially critical of the policies, stating, “While qualifications are obviously necessary, being a good teacher is not dependent on academic ability alone.” Even Cameron confessed that what is memorable in a teacher is “sheer force of personality.” This isn’t learned just by graduating from a ‘good’ university.

And who is it that will decide which universities are ‘good’ anyway? It is another way of narrowing the scope of those who are able to become teachers at a time when teachers are at a premium. As both Labour and the Lib Dems have pointed out, the Conservatives have targeted education funding as an area for cuts: how then can they pay for all of these changes? Well, according to the Lib Dems, by cutting teacher numbers. This seems to be the only way – with Cameron talking about higher salaries for teachers too and many potential teachers likely to be denied access by the new selective measures, there cannot be as many teachers in the classrooms. This means larger classes and more teacher shortages, a problem that Labour has been trying to combat during its entire term in government. While Ed Balls’ trumpeting of governmental achievements is questionable, there does seem to have been a certain amount of progress that would be greatly hindered by the Conservative policies.

It seems that all of this is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what is required of teachers in the average school. My secondary school is now under special measures after consistently receiving the lowest grade available on the ‘behaviour’ category of Ofsted reports, and I feel confident in saying that the teachers who made a difference in that school were those that commanded the respect of the students, making even the disruptive students want to learn and behave. This respect was earned not through the strength of a teacher’s degree but, to borrow a turn of phrase, by “sheer force of personality.”


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