The Cast of Culprits Part 2: The Teachers

January 22, 2007

Until the mid 1970s, the acceptable degrees for secondary mathematics teachers were “mathematics” or “mathematics with physics”. Combined degrees in two or three subjects, including mathematics, then became acceptable. Today the range of acceptable degrees has broadened further still. In our own institution we look …. in cases where degree content is borderline, for good mathematics A-level results or a higher degree in a mumerate discipline.

Tikly et al (2000)

However even if it is unclear whether teachers with better personal academic records or qualifications are necessarily better teachers, there is concern about the difficulties experienced in recruiting teachers from the top end of the ability distribution. There is some evidence in the UK (Chevalier et al 2001; Nickell and Quintini 2002)….that current teachers are being drawn from further down the educational achievement or ability distribution than they were in the past.

Chevalier et al (2005)

In some ways teachers are probably better than ever. I am not accepting the often heard claims that using an interactive whiteboard and knowing how to plan a three part lesson represent major improvements, but I do believe that the climate of secondary education at the moment is such that teachers have to be exceptionally committed not to move to a job where they will not be treated with contempt and anger for the entire working day just for doing their job. (For instance they could become traffic wardens.)

However there are a few ways that teachers are part of the problems we are facing:

The trend over a number the decades has been for teachers to have ever lower qualifications each year. Accordingly many teachers can’t spell, have poor subject knowledge and aren’t familiar with developments in education. More critically we are no longer trained in anything much beyond the day to day business of teaching. While this change was a reaction to an excess of theory, teachers being taught the sociology of education rather than how to control a class, this has now reached the extreme point where those training to teach no longer have any opportunity to reflect on what it means to be a teacher. Academic, ethical and theoretical knowledge are no longer the norm. A quick way to demonstrate this is to look on any teacher’s forum on the internet for discussions of what “professionalism” means. You will find that most correspondents have no idea of what is pretty much a fundamental of the philosophy of education. You will also find that roughly half of those discussing it can’t spell it either.

Secondly, more and more teachers now see the current state of education as normal. Poor behaviour, mixed ability classes including students who won’t access any work, and classes that cannot be directly taught are part of their experience of every year of their teaching career, their training course, and increasingly their own education as well. Every year more and more teachers enter the profession believing that their job is to entertain children in an educational way in a chaotic environment, rather than to actually teach. In fact it’s debatable how many of us even know the dictionary definition of the word “teach”. It means “to give systematic information about (a subject or skill)” – nothing there about colouring in. I don’t think the “culture war” within teaching is lost yet, but there is a strong need for teachers to stand up for the belief that students should be expected to behave and teachers should be expected to teach in the literal sense of the word.

Finally, there is the behaviour of some the survivors of the current system. Many teachers have managed to carve out their own enclaves of civilisation in their classroom where the traditional assumptions still hold. However, many of the most ambitious teachers, including many school managers, have adopted other survival strategies. The key strategy is appeasement. The key aspects of this strategy are:

  • Lavish attention on the worst behaved students. Give them attention and praise, not just for their work but for anything that might win them over to you.
  • Make friends with the students. If they like you, then it won’t matter that they aren’t learning. This is easier to do in subjects where there is no formal assessment.
  • Don’t push the students too far with difficult work. In subjects which aren’t often assessed the students can believe they are doing well continually if thy never have to do difficult work.
  • Don’t follow the school procedures for discipline, particularly those that will involve other members of staff. It will antagonise the students and lead to management thinking you can’t handle your classes. Instead “swallow your smoke”.

Now imagine the effects this strategy has when employed across the school. Badly behaved pupils will always want attention, there will be low expectations of work, and teachers who set difficult work or maintain professional distance will be drawn into conflict with pupils. Moreover any teacher expecting outside support with behaviour will be seen as part of the problem.

These trends have created a significant “enemy within” for the teaching profession. There are strong signs, however, that within the normal teaching ranks they remain a minority. The dangers are that this is not the case within school management, and that the situation will get worse as more and more teachers with a solid professional ethos either leave the profession or eschew seeking promotion.


Chevalier, Arnold; Dolton, Peter and McIntosh, S., Recruiting and Retaining Teachers in the UK: An analysis of graduate occupation choice from the 1960s to the 1990s, London School Of Economics, 2001

Chevalier, Arnold and Dolton, Peter, The Labour Market for Teachers, in Machin et all (2005)
Machin, Stephen and Vignoles, Anna, What’s the Good of Education, Princeton University Press 2005
Nickell, S. and Quintini, G., The consequences of the decline in public sector pay in Britain: A little bit of evidence, The Economic Journal 112, 2002
Tikly, Clare and Wolf, Alison, The Maths We Need Now: Demands, Deficits and Remedies. Institute of Education, 2000

Details of teacher qualifications can be found here http://www.dfes.gov.uk/rsgateway/DB/SFR/s000413/sfr25-2003.pdf. Discussion of this entry and/or teacher qualifications can be found on INFET and TES


  1. Once again, tis all true. I sigh to admit that new teachers are probably the best equipped to teach the kids of today because they have been how to do it – as you describe – in order to placate and appease a group who know you can’t make them do anything. And of course, they were recently the kids of today themselves so have nothing more stringent to measure the experience against.

  2. OA your comment about poor subject knowledge struck home. I am “senior management” but try to keep a grip on reality (IMHO) and have to observe colleagues teaching. Last time was in my own subject area. I don’t profess to be the world’s greatest disciplinarian but I do pride myself on knowing a lot about my subject and I despaired when observing a young, highly regarded colleague (way better than me in terms of motivating a class) teach something that was obviously (to anyone with O level Chemistry) wrong. Perhaps I’m too nice but I didn’t correct him until after the kids had gone. My biggest difficulty with this is that when observing outside their own specialisms some of my senior colleagues may not spot this kind of thing.

  3. How very true. Nothing you say has not been experienced at some time in my as yet relatively short teaching career (10 years).

    I thank you.

  4. You’ve probably got a point about professionalism. As a young teacher my understanding of it is a little fuzzy and amounts to: arrive on time and don’t hit any kids. Perhaps that’s putting it a little simplistically but I’m not sure I’ve got the whole picture.

  5. I am an NQT who grew up and was educated abroad but did my PGCE here – I am horrified at what teachers here have to put up with and equally disturbed at the content of the PGCE course – I gritted my teeth and went through with it because a British qualification is deemed to be among the best in the world – but now I feel extremely lucky that I was educated abroad and can see that the conditions teachers have to endure here are not normal. Good heavens, we’d all quit back home!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: