Cable's Barmy Plan

Much of the current focus in the education press is on the threat to funding for Universities, with the Telegraph reporting a plan to allow badly run universities to go bust and close, and the LibDem Minister Vince Cable announcing that his department will in the future only fund the highest quality university research.

Cable's plan is especially barmy, even if he does have a crystal ball to sort the research wheat from the chaff (who saw the value of lasers, developed solely to test a subtle prediction of Einstein's, or knew that the quantum physics of the 1920s would lead to the digital revolution?)

If only the top research centres survive, where will the career progression for freshly qualified post-docs be? Where will Ph.D. students find posts to cut their teeth on and develop their skills? Why would the most talented students in schools be attracted to research instead of banking?

Britain's research base is still world class, which is a near miracle given how much is done with so few resources. But the structure of our research base is lean already. If Vince Cable seems intent on reducing it back further, he will find that it is not the fat he is cutting away. Real and irreversible damage to the country will be done. It will not be easily reversed by cash injections in a few years time when the damage becomes apparent.

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Gove's Cunning Plan to Recruit Better Teachers

The ongoing crisis in school Physics teaching was not improved much by the last government, leaving most lessons taught by biologists or chemists. Most English teachers have first class degrees, but a quarter of new Physics teachers have third class degrees, more than any other subject. This is for two main reasons.

First, physicists are drawn to the abstract and the impersonal, and so not many are cut out for the intense social experience that is teaching. This leaves teacher training colleges accepting almost anyone who applies.

Second, few qualified physicists and engineers are willing to work for the kind of salary that is intended to be attractive to people with English or History degrees. Industry pays what is needed to attract those with shortage skills.

The Education Minister, though, has a cunning plan: bar those with a third class degree from funded teacher training places. This will, apparently, make teaching more attractive to the better educated and improve the quality and standing of teaching as a profession. And, to give Gove some credit, there is some logic in this.

Courses Desirable

Modern students deciding on their career choices do see the most difficult to enter professions as the most desirable, so the elite students gravitate to Medicine, with its history of insufficient training places to train all the physicians we need. The restricted entry leads to high levels of salary and a social standing out of all proportion to the skills actually needed to work as a GP.

So Gove's solution is to raise the entry bar for prospective teachers, without a corresponding pay rise for those with shortage skills. Pay has not risen above inflation for the last decade, and it is still impossible for many schools to fill their Maths and Physics posts with specialists as a result.

The problem Gove has, though, is that teaching is a profession accepts anyone with a non-honours pass degree from a university which may only ask for two grade E's at A Level. Rejecting third class honours wholesale says that a Third in Physics from Oxford or in Engineering from Imperial College is not as desirable as a Lower Second Class degree in Textiles:Knit from the University of Westminster.

Shortage Skills

An engineering company short of skills or experience would offer a rewards package to attract the best people to apply, and then employ the best amongst the applicants.

Teaching will not become a desirable career for the best qualified and most able people until the salaries reflect the level of ability needed for each post. It takes more money to employ a good mathematician or physicist than it does to get high quality English teachers.

Does Gove have the courage to introduce differential pay in the face of the unions? The current funding squeeze is the perfect cover with the unions weakened, and will be the only chance for a generation. I won't be holding my breath.

Related posts:
How to Recruit a Physics Teacher
Biologists Shouldn't Teach Physics
Modular Physics Courses harm Learning

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