Earlier this week Michael Gove wrote a letter to Stephen Twigg asking for clarity on a number of issues in his schools policy. Twigg declined with a sassy response. But why? The answers were really not that difficult to give, and if it’s because Gove is going to spin whatever is handed to him, Labour need to step up and demonstrate that they will see his spin and raise him honesty, integrity and clear policies.
So, here’s how I would have answered that letter. (NB: Maybe these aren’t the policies Twigg was going for, but I don’t see why not.)
Dear Mr Gove,
Thank you for your engagement on these issues. I am surprised by some of the questions you asked, as I thought my response fairly obvious to several, but I am always willing to explain to you how education might work better than it is doing under your watch.
Below are answers to the first two lists of questions you sent, on Teachers & Free Schools. I have tried to be thorough in my responses and ensure you have all information necessary. Given that your department, despite its large number of staff plus your two advisors, is currently not meeting targets for answering Parliamentary Questions or Freedom of Information requests on time, and that the Public Accounts Committee have pulled up the Department for the quality of answers when they do arrive, I would ask that you meet me half way: You get those punctuality figures (and the quality) sorted, and I will answer your third set of questions and any others you wish to ask. Fair is fair.
In the meantime, onto your questions….
Firstly, on teachers. You said that people you term ‘unqualified’ professionals who are currently teaching in schools must either undertake a particular prescribed form of training or be sacked.
Does this apply to your Shadow Education Minister Tristram Hunt, who told The Guardian that he teaches in schools in Stoke? If not, why not?
If Tristram Hunt is considered an “instructor” (for which there are several criteria in the current School Teachers Pay & Conditions which he is likely to meet) then no, he need not get qualified teacher status.
Does this apply to the former Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who taught in his old school for two years? If not, why not?
As David is no longer teaching in a school, and we are not planning to wing this policy backwards through a time machine, then no – it is does not apply to him.
Does this apply to teachers from independent schools such as St. Paul’s who may not have QTS but who do have degrees in maths, physics and chemistry from Russell Group universities and who give lessons to children from local state schools where there are no teachers with degrees in those subjects?
As an independent school St Paul’s is allowed to hire whoever it wishes, though it seems rather odd that they would wish to employ teachers not capable of passing the minimum standards set by the qualified teacher certification process. We would therefore encourage St Paul’s to ensure their staff are given the opportunity to demonstrate that they meet these standards. As noted above, if there is a shortage of teachers with a specific qualification in an area, and this is only a limited type of instruction happening occasionally in schools, this would fall under the criteria for an “instructor” and qualified teacher status is not needed. That said, we would hope that by working with local state schools, these outstanding teachers might be encouraged to move to where their skills could help students from non-traditional backgrounds in getting to university, and it is for this reason that we would push for schools like St. Paul’s to ensure their staff do meet the minimum standards and are certified, so they can then choose where to teach in the future. Getting all staff their qualification is a fair return for working so hard with their young charges.
Does this apply to a lecturer from a further education college whom we have allowed to provide high quality technical education in a school, a flexibility schools were given following a recommendation in the Wolf Report which you claim to support in its entirety?
The Wolf Report recommended that the QTLS qualification gained by people in FE should also be transferrable into school teaching. We would continue this recommendation. Therefore, any teacher with QTS or QTLS would be able to teach in a state school.
If an individual teacher currently employed in a state school declines to pursue the prescribed path you dictate, how will you ensure he or she is dismissed?
As per your current legal issues with the national curriculum, we still need to look further at this, with the support of a legal team. Given that we are in early stages (in comparison to your 3 years of work on the curriculum) I’m sure you can understand why this might take some time. If it transpires that there is no legal way of dismissing teachers, there are alternative ways to ensure this policy aim. For example, we might limit the % of unqualified teachers allowed in a school and reduce this % over time, or we could ask that any further employment of teachers requires that the teacher get qualified within two years or they will be dismissed. We would also publish headline data on the % of teachers in the school who meet (and are in training for) qualified teacher standards.
If an existing free school or academy is good or outstanding for teaching and learning and an individual teacher’s lessons are judged good or outstanding by Ofsted but they do not have QTS, would you insist they were dismissed?
Our insistence is that the school ensures the teacher gets qualified. In the specific anecdotal case you mentioned it is even more important the school does so. Rightly, many schools in the state sector have, and will continue to hold, policies of preference for teachers meeting the qualified teacher standards as they feel this provides assurance that teachers have met standards on health & safety, assessment, etc. This sort of careful approach is particularly true of schools in areas with the most vulnerable intakes, as these students cannot afford to have a teacher who has not been shown to meet a minimum standard. (Even if it is true that there are wonderful teachers out there who are currently not qualified I am sure you would rather Heads in these schools were certain about these standards rather than ‘taking a chance’). If there is an outstanding teacher in an outstanding school, but they have not been put on the pathway to getting QTS, this would limit their opportunity to teach in schools with such challenges in the future, even though they are exactly the types of schools that would benefit most from their expertise. Of course, we could follow your policy of simply lifting the requirement, but this runs the risk of schools letting in people to teach those students who do not meet the minimum standards. Instead we prefer a policy that says outstanding school *must* help their teacher get qualified which will then enable those teachers to move to other schools, when and where they are most needed.
Have you taken legal advice on how you might secure such a dismissal?
As above, we will do so in due course.
Could you let us know how that advice squares with an individual teacher’s rights under EU law and the Human Rights Act?
This is a matter we can discuss once looked into further (as I say, you have had 3 years on your curriculum changes and are still having to look at legal advice, so I think asking for time is not unreasonable).
Given that a disproportionate number of those teaching in our schools without QTS are from BME backgrounds or enjoy other protected characteristics under equalities legislation, can you tell me if your plans are compliant with the Equalities Act?
One of the notable effects of New York’s decision to ‘relax’ requirements for teacher certification in the late 80s and 90s was that teachers from BME backgrounds and of other protected characteristics became (a) less likely to have certification than their peers, and (b) concentrated in schools with the most vulnerable populations. Every teacher, reagrdless of background, should be given equal treatment with regard to certification: including access to getting it and being required to have it. To suggest that it’s okay for some people not to have a qualification simply because of their background is akin to saying that it is okay for some students not to get great GCSE results simply because they are BME or in another vulnerable group. For this reason I believe our policy will not only minimally meet the requirements of the Equalities Act (as I am sure could be demonstrated in an impact report) but that we will actually be implementing a policy that meets the full spirit of the act by ensuring equality among all teachers regardless of their backgrounds.
Secondly, I and many other anxious parents would be grateful if you could clear up the confusion surrounding your free schools policy.
What is the difference between a free school and your proposal for a ‘parent-led academy’ or ‘teacher-led academy’?
This sort of phrasing is commonly used in the US Charter School system; a system often referred to by you in policy documents. In the US a distinction is drawn between “charter management schools” and “mom and pop schools”. The difference is decided based on the characteristics of the group who put in the proposal, and who are considered the “founder” members. Approximately 1/3 of the most recent list of granted Free Schools were proposed by academy chains, and not parent groups. These labels could help to distinguish between the founder types and ensure parents are more informed about who is designing their local schools.
You say such schools – ie new free schools – would only be set up in areas where there is a shortage of school places. Your colleague Lord Adonis said they should be set up where there is a shortage of ‘good quality’ school places. Who is correct?
The policy as announced today is where there are fewer school places than children who need them.
What is your definition of a shortage of places?
Where there are more children in an area than there are school places available within a reasonable distance.
What is your definition of a shortage of ‘good quality’ places?
I did not give a definition of good quality places. I believe those were Lord Adonis’ words.
Without such a definition how will you ensure that any decision you take over the opening of some free schools, and not others, on the basis of a claimed shortage of places is not judicially reviewed?
This question is now irrelevant.
How can you ensure such a decision on your part was not judged unreasonable by any judge on the Wednesbury principle, leading to the overturning of your decision and considerable cost to taxpayers?
We would be reasonable in our decisions.
What would you define as the area in which there has to be a shortage of places before a free school can be set up? A borough? A city? A given travelling distance? In both urban and rural areas?
There are many different ways this may work, and it could be appropriate to have different criteria in different types of areas, potentially based on population density. Given a current move toward regional Ofsted structures, they may be involved in advising on these requirements, as might other bodies. Indeed, with so much change in the governance structures of education there is no way to make a concrete administrative decisions on who (and how) this decision will be made at present. Once in power, and knowing what resources are available, then the details can be hammered out. If we can make that decision in fewer attempts than you have had at announcing GCSE changes (I believe the count is now four), then I will be happy.
If a school within the area you define has not met its admissions quota, but is ranked inadequate by Ofsted, does that mean you would force parents to send their children to a failing school rather than let a great new school be established?
If a school were currently ranked as inadequate by Ofsted it would already be required become an academy, or have a new sponsor. This would, under your reasoning, already mean it will change into a great school. Hence no new school (great or otherwise) needs to be established. Unless you are saying that academisation does not really lead to improvement?
How would you prevent existing under-performing schools simply increasing their admissions quotas – thus ‘ending’ any shortage of places – and so preventing any great new school being established?
As described above, under-performing schools are already being converted into great new ones. Given that we envisage a greater scrutiny of admissions via the local authority, it is also possible that school place expansion could be limited if a school receives a low Ofsted grade – though, at this stage, we cannot say what position LAs will be in by 2015 given the number of cuts and changes.
And there we go. Questions answered. Not so difficult or dramatic as you might have thought, though we – of course – still have more to do to ensure these policies can be best implemented to ensure a great education for all families across the country. Once you have sorted the legal holes in your own policies and finally started answering the questions we (and the public) are putting to you, then I’ll be happy to discuss even more.