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Chris McGovern: Ministers’ boasts about teacher quality ring hollow as entry tests are failed 

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Good teachers make good schools. Great teachers make great schools. Brilliant teachers make brilliant schools.

This is a simple truth about education. No amount of tinkering with the structure of schools, with the component parts of the curriculum or with how we assess pupils, is ever going to circumvent this fundamental reality. Talented teachers underpin all educational success, all the time, everywhere.

Subject knowledge is a vital component of good teaching. However, The Times (24th Jan) reports that  many applicants for primary school teacher training courses are failing new tests in simple maths and spelling. Until recently, GCSE grades C in English and in Maths were deemed sufficient to enter teacher training. Given the low academic level of GCSE, such grades are little more than certification of incompetence. The B grades, now required, are scarcely more credible, given the extent of GCSE grade inflation.

Why, then, are politicians telling us that we have the best generation of teachers, and trainee teachers, ever? Back in 2003, Schools Minister, David Miliband was proclaiming that “Ofsted have (sic) previously said we have the best generation of teachers ever, now they say we have the best teacher trainees ever.”

The boasting continued. At the 2010 Labour Party Conference, Ed Balls, the shadow Secretary of State for Education, announced that 13 years of Labour government had produced, “The best generation of teachers we have ever had”.

Not to be outdone, the current Coalition Government has been repeating the mantra of “best ever”. Its November 2010 White Paper, The Importance of Teaching, stated: “There is no question that teaching standards have increased in this country in recent decades and that the current cohort of trainees is one of our best ever.” The Government confirmed this judgement the following year.  A DfE publication about teacher training stated that, “…we have in our schools today the best generation of teachers we have ever had”.

Less there be any doubt, the message continues to be hammered home. At the Conservative Party conference in 2013, the then Education Secretary, Michael Gove, was unequivocal in his praise for teachers: “…We have the best generation of teachers ever in our classrooms – including the very best generation ever of young teachers …”

The mood of self-congratulation is endemic and all pervasive. Should we believe it? In terms of educational attainment, the OECD reports our relative decline internationally. Employers complain about the poor quality of school-leavers and look increasingly to immigrant labour. Universities are running remedial catch-up courses for new undergraduates.

A revised National Curriculum is in place that is supposed to be tougher but it seems that many teachers are struggling to teach it. The basic building blocks of English grammar, for example, are proving a real challenge for teachers who were never taught such things themselves. When I made this point on BBC Breakfast TV, a teacher challenged my concerns. In response, I asked him, ‘on-air’, to demonstrate that he could write a sentence. He appeared to suffer from a ‘panic attack’ and had to be rescued by the presenters!

As teachers we spend a lot of time telling children about the importance of honesty. We should not lower the ‘honesty bar’ for politicians. We have some great teachers but we have at least as many useless teachers. Pupils know this all too well and so do parents. This is far from a ‘golden age’ of teaching. It time for politicians to ‘come clean’. Only then will we be in a position to compete with the best education systems around the world.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovernhttp://www.cre.org.uk
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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