What makes a good teacher?

Sunday 31 October, 10.45am until 12.15pm, Café

‘Chaos ruled OK in the classroom
as bravely the teacher walked in’

The opening lines of Roger McGough‘s ‘The Lesson’ neatly summarise the public’s perception of the working lives of teachers. On the one hand they are admired for the challenges they take on, with schools perceived to be in terminal crisis. On the other hand, many fear teachers are not up to the job. OFSTED claims we have the best generation of teachers ever, but critics cite evidence that our teachers are amongst the worst qualified in Europe.

New Labour adopted a ‘sweeteners with sanctions’ approach: golden handshakes and handcuffs to ensnare new teachers, combined with a professional regulator - the now defunct General Teaching Council for England – that was supposed to discipline errant pedagogues. This held up the teachers as well behaved role models, who could get their charges through endless tests, but risked discouraging inspirational mavericks. The new coalition government, by contrast, is focused on the calibre of initial entrants. In opposition, David Cameron said he would raise entry requirements for those going into state-funded teacher training, and the new government has announced it will head hunt ‘high-flying professionals’ from other sectors. But how does this approach sit with the idea of teaching as a vocation? Today’s teachers certainly don’t seem to have much staying power. There is no shortage of new recruits prepared to enlist, but nearly half of those who begin teacher training will have left the state sector within five years. Should we aim for the model of lifelong dedicated Mr Chips figures, or is teaching in the modern era a short-term bridge for whizz kids en route to a career in the city, or even a retreat in later years for corporate leaders keen to put something back into society? 

Perhaps the problem lies in the way teachers are taught, even the very idea that well-educated graduates need a professional qualification at all. Schools minister Nick Gibb allegedly told Department of Education officials the day after his appointment that he, ‘would rather have a physics graduate from Oxbridge without a PGCE teaching in a school than a physics graduate from one of the rubbish universities with a PGCE’. It outraged many in the teacher training world, but should we be querying the purpose of teacher training? 

With a prevailing ethos of ‘teacher as facilitator’ and an emphasis on fashionable orthodoxies such as treating learning as a skill, or pupil behaviour, or student voice, could it be that there is too little emphasis on the subjects that teachers teach? Would today’s teachers gain from studying the philosophy, history, and sociology of education, or would that over-academicise what is an art best learned by experience? More fundamentally - could the crisis of teacher education be expressive of wider uncertainties over the meaning of education itself?

Listen to session audio:


Sonia Blandford
professor of educational leadership and innovation, University of Warwick; national director, Achievement for All (DfE/ National College); adviser to CEO, Teach First

Tom Burkard
research fellow, Centre for Policy Studies; visiting professor of education policy, University of Derby; project leader, Phoenix Free School of Oldham

Professor Dennis Hayes
professor of education, University of Derby

Sir Alan Steer
pro-director, Institute of Education; member, Ofsted Board; director and national judge, Teaching Awards; author, Learning Behaviour, Lessons Learned

Toby Marshall
A Level Film Studies Teacher; PhD researcher in sociology of education, UCL Institute of Education

Produced by
Toby Marshall A Level Film Studies Teacher; PhD researcher in sociology of education, UCL Institute of Education
Professor Dennis Hayes professor of education, University of Derby
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