Every teacher matters

Winner, Prospect Think Tank Awards 2011 Publication of the Year

The new Government wants to improve the quality of teaching. In July 2010, the Education Secretary Michael Gove told the Education Select Committee: “The single most important thing in education is improving the quality of the educational experience for each child by investing in higher-quality teaching … There is simply no way of generating educational improvement more effectively than by having the best qualified, most highly motivated and most talented teachers in the classroom. Everything should be driven by that.”

This is absolutely the right focus. Academic research suggests that the difference in a pupil’s achievement between a high-performing teacher and a low-performing one could be more than three GCSE grades. The Coalition is right to move on from the debate about class size, which has a much smaller impact on pupils’ achievement than teacher quality.

Many teachers in English schools do a great job, delivering engaging, effective lessons and achieving excellent results. However much of this good practice occurs despite the system, not because of it. Teachers are subject to a stifling array of regulations, pressures and restrictions that impact on their freedom to teach.

The Department for Education (with its agencies) devotes a remarkable amount of effort and resource to improving the quality of teaching. The Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA), the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services and Ofsted employ 3,000 staff, with a combined budget of £1.5 billion per year. But results are very poor. The Children, Schools and Families Select Committee has found that training of teachers after initial qualification is “patchy” with “a number of fundamental problems”. Other research has found that only 25 per cent of teachers report that they are regularly observed in classroom practice, and that two thirds of all continuing professional development (CPD) is “passive” learning – what Professor John Bangs of the Institute of Education has referred to as “death by PowerPoint”. The TDA’s standards for new teachers are vague and little concerned with actual teaching practice. The National College’s compulsory qualification for new headteachers, the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH), is especially weak, despite recent improvements.

In addition to reviewing the academic and empirical research available, Reform has conducted an extensive series of interviews with headteachers, teachers, governors, and local authority and union officials. Simply put, the best schools do it themselves. Schools that make a success of teachers’ continuous professional development take the training of staff as seriously as any organisation in any sector. They have created their own systems of performance management rather than relying on government’s. They define their own standards for effective teachers separate to the TDA’s. Not only do they improve good teachers, they manage poor teachers effectively, and work successfully with the teaching unions to do so.

This means that education Ministers have one of the brightest opportunities for successful public service reform which both improves performance and saves resources. On the one hand, there is a clear opportunity to sweep away the bureaucratic overhead which is not succeeding in delivering improved quality of teaching. On the other, they can build on the successful practice already flourishing in the best schools despite that bureaucracy. The task is to strengthen the accountability of schools so that, over time, all headteachers look to strengthen their management ability to improve good teachers and weed out poor performers.

In order to reduce the ineffective bureaucracy that surrounds teacher quality, the forthcoming Education White Paper should announce the following reforms:

– Government attempts to control teacher quality should end. The Government should strip back the accountability regime: Ofsted should focus solely on the quality of teaching and management and the TDA should focus solely on teacher recruitment and initial training.
– Local authorities should stop providing School Improvement Partners to schools. Governors should take responsibility for ensuring they are properly equipped to hold heads to account.
– The National College should be privatised, allowing schools to pay directly for its useful services. Underperforming schools should buy in to the successful National College programmes – National Leaders of Education, Professional Partners and the Improving Teacher Programme – to benefit from the sharing of best practice across schools.
– Universities, in conjunction with business and excellent school leaders, should develop education-focused MBA-style qualifications to replace the NPQH.

In order to increase the accountability of schools to parents, as a means of strengthening management and performance, Ministers should:

– Remove the various Government interventions into the cost and size of the teaching workforce, in particular the 2003 workforce agreement. Heads should have the freedom to set the right balance between pay, staff numbers and quality, and should be able to demand even greater professionalism from their staff, rewarding them as appropriate. One result would be a fall in the number of teaching assistants, since the value of the rapid growth in their numbers is not supported by the research evidence.
– Encourage genuine parental choice as the best means to provide real accountability. The Government should remove the self-imposed restrictions on the free schools initiative to increase the number of new institutions and allow the effects of choice and competition to work. It is inconsistent to ban the making of profits in schools funded by the taxpayer when the making of profit in publicly-funded hospitals, prisons and care homes is allowed.

These recommendations are clearly in line with the new Government’s direction of travel in school reform. But Ministers should realise that their initial proposals are not sufficient to make a significant change to the quality of teaching and so to standards. Ministers’ ideas so far have focused on bringing new teachers into the profession, for example through an expanded Teach First programme. But the key task for improving the education system in the short to medium term is to improve the quality of the 447,000 existing teachers. Ministers have placed the TDA and the National College under review but they have not challenged the prevailing idea that the improvement of teacher quality should be a responsibility of government rather than schools.

Successful public service reform does not aim simply to cut costs. But by removing inefficiency and limiting the role of government to its proper one, it does just that. The measures outlined in this paper will also generate substantial savings over time. These include:
– The annual budget of the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services (£124 million in 2010-11).
– A substantial part of the budget of the Training and Development Agency for Schools (total budget £713 million in 2010-11).
– Part of the administration budget of the Department for Education (£177 million in 2010-11).
– A reduction in the cost of teaching assistants. Reform has previously estimated the potential saving in teaching assistants to be £1.7 billion a year.
The implication is that Ministers should look for savings of over £2 billion a year in the White Paper. This would represent 6 per cent of the current Department for Education schools budget or over £90,000 per school. In addition to these savings, the proposed reforms will lead to improved school management, better teaching and superior educational outcomes.