The way schools select their staff says a huge amount about their attitudes to education. I recently read Katharine Birbalsingh’s essay on staff policies at Michaela Community School in Changing Schools. I was struck by how determined she is to employ the right people, even if it means doing without some staff until the right person can be found. She commented that it was not good enough just to employ the best person who happened to show up for interview on the day. If none of the candidates were good enough, she would not employ any of them.
This shows her commitment to finding truly excellent staff, and, like so many of the things that are happening at Michaela, we can all learn from it. But it is not only the general quality of the staff that matters, it is the specific question of whether they are committed to Michaela’s uncompromising focus on building knowledge in every pupil.
What criteria should a knowledge-centred school use for employing staff? This is a question worth pondering more generally.
Firstly, proof is needed that a person is in fact knowledgeable about the subject they teach. Schools naturally look at the grades and degree classifications of prospective candidates, but this is far from telling the whole story. British school exams do not test broad knowledge very effectively, and have become increasingly fiddly and box ticking in recent decades, so that a very knowledgeable candidate could be penalised for not meeting fastidious requirements that have more to do with whether he has been taught to the test than whether he has received a good all round education.
Another obvious requirement would be a high level of written and spoken English. Once again, the school might look to academic qualifications as an initial filter, but given the lack of rigour concerning good English in recent years, these will prove a poor guide. The interview itself, and the lesson taught, is likely to tell schools more about a candidate’s articulacy.
Professional qualifications are the most suspect element of all. Many teacher training courses are little more than indoctrination in anti-knowledge ideology. They are more likely to make a candidate unfit for a knowledge centred school than to prepare him to work in one.
Years of experience would also have to be treated with extreme caution. Anyone who has been teaching in state schools, and even many independent schools, for a significant part of the last twenty years will have had to fight hard to maintain a belief in transmitting knowledge using direct instruction. If they have fought that fight, and they have the battle scars, they’ll be all the stronger for it. There are also those who have gradually and painfully discovered traditional methods despite the progressive indoctrination they received. Again, that process of battling against the prevailing orthodoxy will have given them a valuable mental toughness. But if experienced candidates have succumbed to conformity, or, worse, become true believers in skills over knowledge and pupils over teachers, then all those years of experience are more of a hindrance than a help.
All in all, schools that are really breaking the mould and focusing uncompromisingly on knowledge need to be very sceptical about many of the factors that typically inform school recruitment decisions. And given the uncertainty about inferences which can be drawn from dumbed down exams, perhaps they should consider setting candidates a written test of their own devising. An essay would give candidates an opportunity to demonstrate their articulacy, while a well designed multiple choice section would be the best way of gaining an objective view of their overall subject knowledge.
Of course, all of this is based on the premise that schools actually receive a good number of quality applications for vacancies. To ensure that that happens, they need to make their school somewhere teachers actually want to work: an ordered and civilised place, where teachers can focus on teaching and count on the support of management. Here again, we can learn many lessons from Michaela.