Graham Stuart: Lessons we can learn about building Britain’s next generation of teachers

editorial image
Have your say

TODAY, the House of Commons Education Committee that I chair comes to York to meet students and pupils, parents and teachers to hear what they consider to be the key issues in attracting, training and retaining the best possible teachers.

There’s nothing more important than the quality of teaching when it comes to raising standards for our children. Great teachers inspire all children to learn and make a particular difference to the progress of weaker performers.

One study from the United States showed that students who were given high performing teachers for three consecutive years achieved 50 percentage points higher in exams than a comparable student who had lower performing teachers.

Research from New Zealand makes it clear that, aside from the characteristics of students themselves, teachers are the single biggest influence on student achievement, accounting for 30 per cent of the variance between high and low performers.

Sutton Trust research shows that the effects of high-quality teaching are especially significant for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds: over a school year, these pupils gain one and a half years’ worth of normal learning with very effective teachers, compared with just half a year’s worth with poorly performing teachers. In other words, for low income pupils the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher is a whole year’s learning.

That’s why we are so keen to get out of Westminster and hear directly from local people and professionals on the front line how we can attract the right people into teaching and then help them be the best they can be. As a Yorkshire MP, it’s a particular pleasure to bring the Committee here and find out about the best practice in the county.

Select committees exist to scrutinise everything the Government does within a particular policy area – in our case, childhood, education and young people.

Committees are cross-party, which means we deliberately put political battles aside and spend our time looking closely at the evidence of what works, and – perhaps more often – what doesn’t.

We look into a range of topics, gather written and oral evidence and produce reports that can and often do directly impact on government policy.

So far in our inquiry, we’ve taken evidence from academics, governors, unions, training providers, and of course from young people and teachers.

One of the key things we’ve established is that investment in teachers is about a lot more than just how much we pay them – though this clearly matters. Some of the world’s best-performing schools systems – like Singapore – don’t actually pay their teachers very differently from the UK.

Yet in Singapore teachers are held in such high esteem that people compete to be one. Why? Partly, we think, because there is a proper career structure for classroom teachers – which union leader Mary Bousted tells us simply doesn’t exist here. Also, because they enjoy serious, high-quality professional development opportunities – something a lot of people have told us needs to be improved in England.

Another key issue is what qualities make an outstanding teacher? The Government is putting increased emphasis on the academic background of potential teachers, and won’t be providing bursaries for trainees with weak degrees.

While there is clearly strong support for this approach, we are concerned that some people might make brilliant teachers but, for whatever reason, do not have a really great academic UK degree.

For example, they might have trained abroad, or gained subject knowledge through another career or through practical experience instead. Lots of pupils have told us that being able to communicate well, being tolerant and being understanding and imaginative are often just as important as knowing a subject thoroughly well.

At the moment, the vast majority of teachers train in partnerships run by a university – like the student teachers we’ll be meeting from York and York St John Universities, and Leeds Trinity on part of our visit today. The Government has meanwhile decided it wants much more training to be managed and delivered by schools.

For fairly obvious reasons, there are lots of advantages to having as much practical training as possible, but there are clearly also advantages to university training too – such as the opportunity to learn from subject experts. What is more, Ofsted argues that, in general, university teacher training is still of better quality. So the picture is far from crystal clear.

As a committee, we’re keen to hear as many different perspectives as possible – that’s why we organised a recent Twitter conversation about what to ask the Secretary of State when he appeared before us recently (see Today , after the formal evidence session, we are holding a question and answer session with the audience. Please come to the Guildhall: we’d love to hear from you.