The Teacher Gap – a review

This is a review of Rebecca Allen and Sam Sim’s book “The Teacher Gap”.

If you’re a joiner then every problem needs a hammer and nails. If you’re an economist then, this book suggests, you perhaps think you can solve most problems with more information, and the right kind of incentives. That said, the authors provide a brilliantly written book. Its use of case studies and life stories actually make it a bit of a page turner. It is really useful for headteachers, and for new entrants into the profession, and provides some interesting ideas and challenges for policy makers.

The analysis of the current system of ITE and induction is in some ways very perceptive, in that it rightly points out the serious problems with a system that front loads training, then expects trainees and newly qualified teachers to continue to improve, sometimes left to their own devices and with a full, or almost full ‘caseload’ of classes. I also really like some of the suggestions about lengthening and changing the character of ITE courses – so that the challenge of learning to teach is more purposeful, and more manageable.

There are several important strands running through the book – one is that schools need to enable teachers to focus their efforts on activities, both teaching and professional development, that actually matter, that make a difference to the learning and lives of their pupils. There is a really important section in which the mimetic forces, that encourage schools to re-create elaborate and wasteful procedures, are brought into the light. For me the most resonant and convincing theme is the need to provide teachers with some space and time to work collaboratively to build their agency and autonomy, a message which resonates strongly with other recent reading .

This strand emerges in chapter 6 which for me is a cogent, and urgent case for improving the mental conditions of labour under which many teachers work. There’s very convincing use of Ryan and Deci’s SDT theory – a subtle argument for teachers to be able to work on the problems that they collectively perceive are the important ones in their practice. I know quite a few headteachers and MAT executives who would do well to consider the extent to which their

The book does have some important limitations, and a few places where the argument is contradictory – in relation to the extent to which ‘deliberative feedback’ will help teachers continue to improve their practice despite teachers’ work earlier in the book being as an ill-defined problem, for instance.

The analysis of ITE is incomplete, and from my perspective (as an ITE tutor in HE) makes too much of the differences between school-based and Uni-led courses. For me the real difference is in quality of tuition and school-based experience. Most courses spend similar amounts of time in school, for instance, and there are excellent Uni-led courses and SCITTs, just as there are poor examples. There is also a hint that school based courses are better because they give more information to the head teacher about prospective NQTS. For me this rather misses the point of ITE courses – they are designed to give trainees good training, education and induction into a new profession (especially when they’re paying for it), not just act as a clearing house for head teachers to select new employees. That politicians have fetishised ‘time in school’ and ‘practical experience’ over the last 20 years, and if the book’s premise is right, there has been little improvement in teacher quality should perhaps make us pause and think whether time in school is necessarily or automatically the mark of a high quality ITE route.

Despite making some digs at past incarnations of Ofsted, sometimes the logical conclusion to the difficulties in measuring teacher-quality are not drawn. The book is excellent on the silliness of the hoop jumping and wasted innovations that schools have undertaken, either to try to obtain a few extra percentage points in the targets set them by government, or to fend off an Ofsted inspector, but the overall system of punishing accountability behind this is not really called into question. We no longer grade teachers, because we recognise that such grades are inaccurate and unhelpful. There’s quite a bit of evidence in this book that grading schools is a perverse incentive, and other studies have suggested that it does not give teachers or parents the information they need to choose a place to work or send their children (not to mention those that suggest that for most parents school-choice is a myth).

Instead what emerges is an economist’s view of the system – atomised and separate schools and teachers, each of which have set characteristics which allow them to be assigned the label of lemons. The problem is turned into one of avoiding the lemons and hiring or finding work only with the good teachers or schools. Trouble is that life isn’t that simple – some teachers are lemons only in particular schools or contexts, and the problems with retention suggests that school lemony-ness (as defined as a school which puts ineffective and overwhelming pressure on its NQTs and experienced teachers) is an endemic, systemic condition. Furthermore we need to change the lemony teachers and schools into better ones, because they are the teachers (and schools) we have – there isn’t a population of non-lemony trainees waiting to take up the posts of those deemed unfit.