Of all the policy papers I’ve written for the CPS, none has attracted more media interest than Troops to Teachers, published in February 2008. When the US was reducing its armed forces in the wake of the first Gulf War, around 1,500 redundant personnel were retrained as teachers each year. Unsurprisingly, they proved more effective than teachers whose life experience prior to teaching was limited to a teacher-training course. This was especially true in tough, inner-city schools. Most of them were male (82%) and 37% were ethnic minority.
Although we reckoned that England would benefit from a similar programme, there was one important difference: about 40% of non-commissioned officers retire from the American forces with a degree. They are paid to take up distance learning courses and (unlike in the UK) they are given enough time off normal duties to make it a practical proposition. In the UK, it is extremely rare for retiring NCOs to have degrees, and of course retiring officers are much less likely to be attracted by a teacher’s salary.
Consequently, a critical feature of our proposal for the Centre for Policy Studies was that retiring personnel who lacked degrees should be trained as Basic Skills Instructors. I argued that
“At first, this might seem a bit counter-intuitive, especially to anyone who has ever tried to decipher some of the more inventive spellings in a guard report. The Army, after all, tends to attract recruits who have not done well school. However, at the Promethean Trust, we have discovered that this is exactly the kind of person who makes the best remedial literacy tutor. They instinctively understand that learning to read and spell takes a lot of over-learning. They appreciate the value of highly-structured teaching materials. They are willing to persevere long past the point where a conventionally trained teacher gets bored and gives up. And these tutors consistently succeed where specialists have failed. As a bonus, their own spelling invariably improves significantly.”
Towards the end of 2010, Michael Gove [then Secretary of State for Education] decided to put this proposal into action, and in October I was called in for consultation. They told me that Gove wanted to have the tender ready by the end of the year; I rather suspected that this was not so much to convey a sense of urgency as to hint their private opinion that he was out of touch. During the consultation, I carefully explained the success that we had training tutors to use programmed material, both inside schools and in our private work, as well as why military Methods of Instruction courses were excellent preparation for teaching basic skills.
When I heard that the proposal had been scrapped early in 2011, I was not altogether surprised. Officials told me that the proposal had be circulated to a number of school principals, and none were interested. No doubt Gove should have stipulated the need for a funded pilot programme, but most likely he was simply unaware of how threatened many teachers felt about the idea. For example, the NASUWT (my own union!) claimed that the proposal was
“...predicated on the fetishisation of troops and the insulting suggestion that physically powerful adults (men) are needed to teach working class children. It downgrades the professional status and expertise of teachers, suggesting that effective teaching for some groups of young people can be reduced to the use of simplified, structured materials and operating manuals.”
Needless to say, it is impossible to say how extensively this attitude prevails throughout our education bureaucracy, but the disappointing number of former service personnel who have retrained as teachers is almost certainly due to the way programmes were implemented.
With any luck, the new programme to retrain former service personnel to teach technical subjects in Further Education will meet with less opposition. The shortage of FE teachers is acute, and until relatively recently most FE teachers had no specific training to teach; rather, they were subject specialists. The main sponsor is the Education and Training Foundation, a charity which was formed in 2013 and is ‘owned’ by the FE sector. Although this is a welcome opportunity for former soldiers, sailors and airmen, it will do nothing for a profession where behaviour is still a major problem. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers found that 43% of their members had to deal with physical violence in 2014, and there is no reason to assume that this will improve any time soon. The sneering statement of my own union says it all.
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