Fear of electoral annihilation can concentrate the mind wonderfully, which explains why Nick Clegg has decided that he was opposed all along to a government policy pushed through by a series of LibDem Schools' Ministers - that of free schools and academies being able to hire unqualified teachers. We'll put aside the curious concept of collective responsibility not applying to a chunk of the government. We'll ignore that the LibDems are only too eager to claim responsibility for the nice things that the government does - raising the tax threshold is a LibDem policy in a way that raising VAT isn't, for example.
The big claim has always been that the independent sector hires unqualified teachers and they do a good job, so allowing the state sector to do the same thing will have the same result. We won't talk about the free school that recently parted company with a head teacher who herself had yet to complete a PGCE and whose only apparent qualification was a stint at the DfE, alongside the Tory peer and minister who set up the charity that runs the school.
Of course, the reality is that while the independent sector does employ unqualified teachers, they are very much the exception. Research by the Independent Schools Council shows that 90% of teachers in those schools have a teaching qualification and 59% have a PGCE. The ISC also reports that most teachers coming into the private sector come from the state side - either as newly qualified teachers or as experienced teachers in state schools and thus qualified. Essentially, the independent sector has no great propensity for unqualified teachers.
I have no problem with the various in-school training schemes that have been run over the years, that put unqualified teachers into the classroom and also allows them time to learn the skills of teaching, resulting in the confirmation of qualification. You wouldn't want an unqualified doctor who just thought they had the aptitude for the job, would you?
Just because you can get to be Secretary of State for Education on the back of being a journalist, doesn't mean that teaching is a job that doesn't have specific skills. Those skills can be learnt on the job with support, but at the end of it, wouldn't you want to know that the teacher with your children was adjudged to have at least the basic skills required?
Perhaps the real qualitative difference between state schools and the independent sector is the cost. In Birmingham, we spend about £4200 per pupil as base funding - plus Pupil Premium for those in the free school meals group. Average fees in the independent sector for day schooling are of the order of £12,000 a year and that leads to average pupil teacher ratios of just over 9:1.
De-professionalising is not the answer, but the argument over that may hide the real agenda. If, as expected, any future Tory government would allow businesses to profit from education, then expect to see more schools employing more unqualified teachers. Not because they are the equal of those in independent schools, but because they are cheaper and the saving will mean profit.