Former House of Commons Education Select Committee specialist Ben Nicholls is head of policy and communications at London’s Newham College. He writes exclusively for FE Week every month.
The recent resignation of Annaliese Briggs from her Pimlico Primary headship has proven perfect material for dinner party-ranters everywhere.
Her appointment, at the age of 27 and with no formal teaching experience or qualifications, was described as “staggering” by local councillors.
And even since her departure, after just six months, a storm has continued to thunder around the story. After all, we wouldn’t trust command of a warship to someone without active service, nor would we permit an untrained surgeon to stitch us up post-op — and yet here we are entrusting our children to an amateur? It’s tempting to jump on the bandwagon.
Education Secretary Michael Gove has been much-maligned for allowing Free Schools to employ unqualified teachers, and is now working to get ex-soldiers and others into classrooms.
Many have taken this as a slur on teachers’ skill and experience, and this latest chapter will do nothing to silence the naysayers. After all, what system allows an unknown, unqualified chit of a girl to take over a new school, only to abandon it two terms in?
And yet, as the tabloid fury bubbles, I remember that I too am a manager in education, around Miss Briggs’ age, and with no relevant qualification.
Granted, my job isn’t as student-facing as that of a primary headteacher, but as a member of a college senior team, I have a say in matters of teaching policy, recruitment, student experience, and many other areas where I am thoroughly untrained. Nor, in FE, am I alone.
Over the last few years, further and higher education have seen an increase in the number of senior leaders without direct teaching experience. Vice-chancellors like Bill Rammell and Sir David Bell have a vast knowledge of education — in their cases, as minister and permanent secretary respectively — without having operated as academics.
There are principals from accountancy, private sector, and estates management backgrounds and, evidently, they are doing fantastic jobs running complex educational organisations.
Education needs all manner of backgrounds, aptitudes and talents to become a truly diverse sector.”
This is certainly the case with the management team I serve on, where only half have a teaching qualification.
To a great extent, this is about horses and courses. A college the size of ours requires a range of skills and experiences for it to run effectively — it would be as wasteful for our HR director to be an outstanding teacher as it might for an A-level teacher to be an HR professional. This is clearly different in a primary school where the majority of staff are teaching.
But it’s also an issue for policy-makers. My biggest concern about the Pimlico saga is that Miss Briggs felt she had no choice but to leave. Where was the support, the mentoring, the advice? Whatever Miss Briggs’ accomplishments — and she must have plenty, for no governing body appoints simply to muster headlines — teaching experience wasn’t something she had, and the structure around her would surely have known this. The plus-side of the Academy and Free School programme is increased autonomy, but this is also its biggest flaw — with the removal of so many local authority functions (and funds), available support mechanisms are vastly reduced.
Solutions abound — improving Ofsted, developing leadership qualifications, growing proper career pathways for teachers, for three — but the lesson cannot be that only trained teachers can run schools and colleges.
Education needs all manner of backgrounds, aptitudes and talents to become a truly diverse sector. For Miss Briggs even to apply for the role shows a commendable desire to work in this exciting field and if we’re serious about encouraging other bright, young people, then demonising her is wrong.
Let’s work, instead, to make schools and colleges as vibrant and vital as possible — places where anyone, students and staff, can play a role of sorts — and to find the right people for the right jobs, rather than be guided by old-fashioned ideas of who fits where.
Ben Nicholls is head of policy and communications at London’s Newham College.