This is the text of a short opinion piece to appear in In-tuition, the PCET professional journal published by the Institute for Learning.
The relationship between standards in education and public anxiety about those standards is perverse. When reliable data shows that one is improving, the other still rises inexorably. It was therefore heartening to read in the IfL’s In-Tuition journal that a few further education providers have recently managed to secure an outstanding OfSTED grade for their teaching and learning. These exceptions are celebrated.
Yet, I found it hard to believe that OfSTED had not seen a single instance of outstandingteaching and learning in any of the visits they conducted between 2010 and 2012. I see fewer teachers than OfSTED.During that time I observed several who were outstanding. I also saw more than a few who were clearly on their way to becoming outstanding. There were less than a handful who required me to draw upon all the tact, diplomacy and sensitivity I could muster when planning my feedback. What I didn’t see were teachers who when placed in the right environment – one that is supportive, intellectually stimulating and conducive to their well being – did not surprise and inspire me by the progress they made.
There is another uncomfortable truth about quality and standards in education. These tricky, fiddly little things present themselves as objective but are actually much more complicated. The public’s anxiety about what education’s errant middle child gets up to isn’t helped by this complexity. Despite the proliferation of good practice guidelines, frameworks,research evidence and inspection – what quality is and how to achieve it remains contested. In 1956 the philosopher W. B. Gallie, addressing the Aristotelian Society, coined the term ‘essentially contested concept‘ to define thoseundetermined but unanimously agreed as desirable goals – like art, fairness and truth. We all want them, but can’t agree on how to define or achieve them. Gallie was interested in art, but the same difficulty applies to outstanding teaching.
I am hesitant in drawing on OfSTED to defend initial teacher education. In their view, there is scope for the sector to improve the quality teaching and learning. This is not the only legitimate view. But, it is a powerful one that governmentshould take seriously.
There are other authorities with a view on initial teacher education. Published on the same day as the Lingfield Report,the BIS review into the impact of the 2007 regulations is an interesting read. Anyone who spends time with recently qualified teachers will recognise the conclusions they draw: those who complete their PGCE or Cert Ed benefitenormously. They grow in confidence; their ability to use different teaching methods to support learners is enhanced; their professional aspirations are raised. Regulated qualifications establish further education teaching as a worthwhilecareer and creates an environment within which professionalism may flourish.
In the five years since the revised qualification pathway was introduced, colleges have recorded year on year improvements in learner achievement. This is hardly surprising. Their OfSTED profile depends on it. Evidencing a causal(rather than correlative) link between teaching qualifications and learner outcomes – is a tricky process. What is evident is that a regulated sector is an improving sector.
Public anxiety about quality and standards in education – exaggerated by politicians and stoked by the press – is often misplaced. There is good reason to believe that qualified teachers are a necessity if more further education providers are to join the select few in achieving the most desirable grades within the common inspection framework.
Dr Carol Azumah Dennis