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SCHOOL/ What makes a good teacher?

Joe Nutt examines the business of teacher training, and invites the UK government to take an objective look at what an excellent, secondary school specialist teacher actually looks like

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With laudable directness, the recent Schools White Paper emphasized the impact of high quality teachers on children’s educational achievements - the most important factor in determining how well children do is the quality of teachers and teaching. No fence sitting there! It also announced an ambition to reform the business of initial teacher training and a plan to develop a national network of new teaching schools under the guidance of the National College for School Leadership.

Driven no doubt by embarrassing OECD statistics from organisations like PISA and PIRLS, the current administration appears eager to show the tabloids that the country’s schools can compete with the best in the world, instead of gasping for breath behind Lithuania or Slovakia. How they intend to go about this is a fascinating question to anyone with enough international experience to understand the subtle cultural nuances that lie behind the crude PIRLS and PISA figures.

Having spent some time up to my neck in it, I’ve no doubt that the business of teacher training is in need of reform. And it is a business these days: quite big business in fact, if you are one of the larger teacher training institutions. But any business that delivers a product which customers return at the disturbing rate teachers are returned, wouldn't last that long in the fiercely competitive world of hard sales. In the UK (and the US) around 50% of all qualified teachers leave the profession within five years. This figure has been stubbornly resistant to change for much longer than a decade and between 2000 and 2007, more than 25,000 people in the UK qualified as teachers but never taught in a school. There is, of course, a substantial cost attached to this kind of waste and if I was one of those leading providers of teacher training, I would be thinking hard about what it was I was doing which wasn’t working.

If you start to look into the research around this issue, you quickly discover there is an embarrassing excess of research internationally into leadership and school improvement, yet precious little into the one area that focuses attention on that con?dent White Paper assertion, the most important factor in determining how well children do is the quality of teachers and teaching. What makes a skilled maths teacher, or geographer, fuels the success of a brilliant physicist or linguist, is a far more pertinent question than how those subject specialists are led, or how you organise or structure the institution in which they work.