A qualifying question

Imagine this conversation taking place in a consulting room in a leading hospital somewhere in the developed world. The patient has just been told that he’ll need surgery to prevent his condition from deteriorating drastically.

Patient: So what does this surgery involve?

Doctor: Actually, I’m not quite sure.

Patient: I beg your pardon? Are you saying you don’t know what you’ll be doing to me when I’m on the operating table?

Doctor: Well, not exactly. I’ve got a general idea, of course. But there’s nothing to worry about. I’ll have the manual available in theatre.

Patient: The manual?!

Doctor: It’s standard procedure when an unqualified surgeon operates.

Patient: Do you mean to tell me that you’re not even qualified and they’re going to let you operate on me?

Doctor: That is the case, yes. But you don’t need to worry. I’ve had lots of experience with patients since they took me on as a nurse and if anything goes wrong there’ll be one of the senior consultants on call. Now, can we proceed with signing the consent form?

We can imagine this scenario, but fortunately it isn’t going to happen in the real world. No-one in their right minds would allow an unqualified surgeon to perform an operation.

And speaking of no-one in their right mind, let us turn to Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education. Just after schools in the UK closed for the summer holidays, Mr Gove – perhaps hoping that no-one would notice – slipped out an announcement that henceforth Academies would be able to recruit unqualified teachers. Which means that these schools not only enjoy the freedom not to teach the National Curriculum if they don’t want to, but from now on they don’t even have to employ qualified teachers.

One of the notable achievements of the previous government was to instil in schools an attitude of zero tolerance for failure. The analogy was often made between teachers and air traffic controllers. Just like an aircraft coming in to land at a busy airport, children only get one chance at education. There’s no room for error.

In so many areas of life we rely utterly on highly qualified people and take it for granted that only those with suitable qualifications will be allowed to carry out procedures that entail the safety of others. Think of pilots, lawyers, gas boiler fitters. And yet, it now appears, we can entrust the education of children to the unqualified.

What lies behind this decision? And why doesn’t it extend to all schools? If it’s right for Academies – the flagships of the government’s education policy (even if there’s no evidence that changing the status and name of a school improves its performance) – why doesn’t it apply elsewhere? It can’t simply be a cost cutting exercise, even though the salary of an unqualified teacher is considerably below a qualified counterpart. Nor can it be a message to parents that no-one is particularly worried about who teaches their children. So what’s going on?

Could it just be that teachers – the qualified ones – are leaving academies in large numbers? Finding employment in another school is about the only recourse for teachers who disagree with the new terms and conditions that can be imposed on them once their school becomes an Academy.

And one thing the Department of Education really doesn’t want to see is letters from irate Academy parents demanding to know what will be done about staff shortages and the fact that their child has had a succession of supply teachers for months on end. Parents won’t know, unless they ask, whether their child’s teacher is qualified or unqualified. Even when they know, there’s nothing they can do about it, short of moving their child to another school. And of course once exams are sat – and possibly failed because an unqualified teacher didn’t have the necessary subject knowledge and training- it’s far, far too late.

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