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.
FE colleagues probably have little time to watch TV and, if they do, they may reasonably avoid anything to do with education.
I’m glad, though, that I’ve found time to watch the start of Tough Young Teachers, a new BBC3 series following six Teach First participants in three of London’s more challenging schools.
I’m glad for lots of reasons, not least because it increases my ever-growing respect for what teaching colleagues across the country do every day. There can’t be a more valuable or under-valued job.
I’m glad, also, because it confirms both my fears about, and delight in, education on TV.
Professor Mary Beard, talking about her experiences on Jamie’s Dream School in 2012, argued that while the series was “useful”, we “have to be very clear that we were dealing with a group of kids and teachers who, in some ways, were fighting for the attention of the TV cameras”.
So, while TV education can be highly entertaining, and can both shape and stimulate important debate (as well as raise teachers’ status), it cannot ever be the full picture, and we should never pretend it is.
Finally, though, I’m glad because the programme helped me crystallise some of my own puzzled thoughts about teacher training.
Previously, I’ve felt — and written here — that the profession needs to attract people from all walks of life, with all sorts of skills and backgrounds. But Tough Young Teachers has really brought home that teachers need just as robust training as doctors, firefighters, soldiers, or any other professionals.
I know teachers who found their training pretty useless. I know teachers, too, who refer back to it every day.
These are issues of quality, which arguably need addressing — but neither scenario negates the importance of training itself.
That importance is summarised by the tough young teacher who declares, after her second lesson: “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Learning on the job is important, but it can’t be the whole package. Criticising Teach First isn’t my purpose here. The scheme has perhaps done more than anything else to encourage people towards teaching who would never have considered it before.
It just needs to give those people some more training — and I can fairly safely say that most Teach First participants, in my experience, agree. Tough Young Teachers comes at a time when the National Union of Students is running its own campaign to ensure that FE teachers still need to qualify — against a government which disagrees, and which already allows the unqualified to teach in Free Schools.
My own college is clear that teachers need to be qualified, and we’re glad that our Student Union agrees with the importance of this.
It’s a question, though, which is particularly apt in vocational subjects where practical experience is critical for teachers, and highly valued by students.
Proposals being developed by thinktanks and others to facilitate professional secondments into FE will need to consider this question very carefully.
To return to Dream School, I can do no better than quote student Nana Kwame.
When asked whether subject knowledge or ability to communicate mattered more in a teacher, he responded: “You can’t pick between the two — you need someone in the middle, who knows what they’re talking about [but] can get along with you”.
The House of Commons Education Select Committee robustly defended this position, stating in 2012: “There is no clear formula for an ‘outstanding’ teacher… although good subject knowledge, overall academic ability and a range of personal and inter-personal skills are vital”.
But the committee also argued forcefully that “school-based training is vital in preparing a teacher for their future career”.
Six weeks in the summer before Lesson One cannot, with respect to Teach First, ever be enough — and Tough Young Teachers supports that position.
There’s no question that the six participants are pretty tough, not to mention a plethora of other superlatives — they just need to be trained as well.