Once upon a time we had coherent way of entering teaching but a wide range of incoherent and usually meaningless ways to perk up your skills once you’d become a professional custodian of a dry-wipe marker. This wouldn’t do, obviously, because other countries do it much better and manage to keep hold of their teachers for longer. So, we invented the National Professional Qualifications and spent a few years oscillating like loons between making them compulsory or totally irrelevant. Now, everyone’s had to work for what feels like aeons on How to Do It Better. Result? Utterly incoherent ways of becoming a teacher, numberless as the stars in the sky, but a spiffy new set of free NPQs with, I kid you not, a ‘golden thread’ running through them.
Some of us have an incoherent hinterland in our own heads and can’t just accept a metaphor like that. Golden thread? Is it Ariadne’s? Is it close-binding all mankind? Does it twitch like Father Brown’s? Does it weave a magic spell of rainbow design? Why does it have to be dressed up so? If we had a system fit for grown-ups we could just say that we finally have a set of National Professional Qualifications that build on the same principles, from early career teachers to Heads, soup to nuts. We could say, as has one of its architects, that it has a clear structure, more coherence, a better evidence base, can be done alongside the day job rather than requiring Einsteinian time-bending and includes the SEND skills we all need. Why do we need jollying along like three-year olds?
Some of what we do in school is really quite hard. We have to think a lot, at the same time as preventing children from getting jammed in doors or falling downstairs. We have to consider the purpose of education while handing out glue sticks and marking A-level pieces. We have to explain what acid can do to people who might want to taste it to find out for themselves. We have to have a rationale for teaching Spanish grammar and Venn diagrams at a time of plague; volcanoes and poetry while racism, misogyny and climate disaster mess with the future. We have enough threads going on in our heads to knit a Fair Isle jumper. All we require of policy-makers is that they speak plainly and respect our intelligence.
I’ll get over the confounded golden thread, but it won’t solve the teacher crisis. We need more money in the system so that there can be more teachers so that the teachers we have can have some time to think. That’s how they keep them in other countries, as well as coherent training. We need both.
I worry about the future, of course, for all sorts of reasons. As well as all the above, there’s a nagging fear that people don’t expect enough of one another, enough seriousness or enough concentration. I’m sure that the golden thread is a lovely way of describing some worthy training courses but to me it doubles as a tightening noose of over-simplification in our education system caused by cheapness. What do I want in my metaphorical stocking? A system where more funding buys more time, where academic research is respected and teachers’ intellects taken seriously, for the long term.
I’m one to talk, though. I’ve been pointing at children and saying ‘no noses’ all week like a mad thing which has kept me amused as I hand out masks we can’t afford to children who forget where they’ve put them. I delayed the start of a meeting on the content of the visual arts curriculum by telling the trapped assembled about the plastic lemons my mother hung on her Christmas tree, which I’ve inherited. ‘Was it a recycling thing?’ one asked carefully. In the sixties? No, she thought they looked nice and she didn’t have much spare cash. I think a Christmas tree looks unfinished without them, but that just shows what you can do with a child’s brain if you start early enough. One year she experimented with a special total-lemon tree and we were all surprised by how dull it looked.
Perhaps the other thing I want for schools’ stockings is a bit of imagination in the system as well as coherence. There’s a lot of content in the NPQs but not much room for imagination or flair. That’s another consequence of parsimony: thinking deep and free takes time, which costs. When all your lemons look the same, even golden threads don’t make your system sparkle with the reflected light of the sheer joy of learning in communities of children.