Teacher quality is just one part of the big picture

The shadow secretary of state for education, Tristram Hunt, opened his motion in Wednesday’s opposition speech with the premise that a school system is only as strong as the quality of its teachers.

Whilst we of course want a highly qualified, highly skilled profession, individual teachers are only one part of this story. In explicitly stating that government should be focused solely on standards over systems, Hunt painted a narrow view of the factors that underpin a successful education system.

SSAT believes that we cannot ask the teaching profession to drive forward school improvement without considering how they are properly supported to do so. We advocate a model of professional capital, as proposed by Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves at the SSAT National Conference in December. In Fullan and Hargreaves’s model, the collated capital of the whole profession is the sum of human capital, decisional capital, and social capital:

  • Human capital is what Hunt is talking about – getting good people into the profession, giving them a good grounding through high quality ITT and supporting their development throughout their career. Human capital is clearly important, but what you do with ‘the ones you’ve got’, as Dylan Wiliam says, is crucial to the success of the profession.
  • Decisional capital is the experience and expertise gained by sustained and committed classroom practice. In Hargreaves’s terms, it’s knowing what to do when there isn’t a textbook on it, or a handy piece of research to refer to. Whilst academics disagree about the exact length of time it takes to gain decisional capital, it is clear that it isn’t something which can be learned overnight.
  • Social capital refers to the structures that practitioners and policymakers put in place, both at school and system level which enable teachers to collaborate and work together. Or in other words, how human and decisional capital can be shared, disseminated, and expanded further. But social capital does not merely focus on systems; it includes the interactions and exchanges between practitioners that help further the profession.

When human, decisional, and social capital come together to produce professional capital, Fullan and Hargreaves’ work suggests that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. When the whole profession is working together towards a common vision for education, and is well-supported to do this, the profession does surpass the quality of individual teachers. Such models are evident in high-performing school systems, especially in Ontario and Alberta.

Hunt went on to say that more focus needed to be given to CPD across teachers’ careers, not just ITT. Whilst we agree with this sentiment, Hunt’s dismissal of systems undermines the potential of what the profession could do. We strongly recommend that policymakers on both sides of the political spectrum, consider not just the role of teachers themselves, but also the role that a supportive and collaborative system has in developing them.

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