Saturday, 28 July 2012

Gove's decision to use untrained teachers in academies will damage early education

Michael Gove MP,
Secretary of State for Education
Michael Gove’s decision to drop the requirement that teachers in academies need to be qualified is seriously bad news.

I won’t spend too long rehashing the excellent arguments made by Francis Gilbert in today’s GuardianIt seems to me that the trump card in a Gilbert’s strong hand is this: it’s probably all about money. Once academies can start employing unqualified staff, they can reduce their costs and therefore undercut conventional state schools. We are increasingly seeing Cameron 2.0 in the making, red in tooth and claw, and it isn’t hard to imagine a future Tory government wanting to hand over large parts of the school system to profit-making companies. 

Furthermore, I imagine that teacher training departments in universities have long been considered by people like Gove and Cameron as a kind of dangerous left-liberal establishment, taking in eager young graduates and turning them out with all sorts of unhelpful views about active learning and theories about how class and poverty impact on educational attainment. 

But I wanted principally to think about how this might affect early years education. Qualified teachers have always had a rather shadowy existence in the early years. Nursery classes in maintained schools have them, as do nursery schools; but they are very rare in the majority of the early years sector. The recent experiences of Early Years Professionals are probably a neat lesson in what can happen to skilled and qualified education professionals in a deregulated world: they never attain high status, and their pay gets driven down to the floor. 

Looking at the evidence, Gilbert rightly notes that the Finnish school system, long-praised by Gove as one of the world’s best, prioritises high-quality teacher training. Focussing on what we know about early education in England, there are two key findings in the EPPE Project which are relevant. Firstly, it is children from poorer backgrounds who do particularly well if they experience early education led by a qualified teacher. But EPPE also found that there was a group of children who attended a setting without qualified teachers, and without the other usual indicators of quality, who still made very good progress in their development. These children were from comparatively wealthy backgrounds, attending a private nursery. The other advantages of their backgrounds seem to have compensated for the shortcomings of their early years education. If you want every child to have a fair chance, and you want to promote social mobility through education, you need to start with properly trained teachers in the early years. 

So the evidence is against Gove. Additionally, as Gilbert argues, nearly every parent will say they want their child taught by a qualified teacher. Gove’s decision looks poor: both ill-thought out and damaging.

So why should we worry? Partly because of the way this decision has been announced - slipped out during the school holidays, when Parliament isn’t sitting. It will not be scrutinised.  Don't be surprised to find primary school academies eying up the savings they could make by not bothering with qualified teachers in the early years. And when next term comes, how many parents will be asking the headteachers of their children’s school, “is my child being taught by a qualified teacher”? Not many, I bet.


For a previous discussion about the role of teachers in the early years, see my post Do we need teachers in Children's Centres?