A job for the elite, not the incompetent

A man who took modesty to pathological extremes, the late Willie Donaldson used to explain why, for several years, he was employed to write a column in this newspaper. Every paper needs a column which no one actually reads, he said. It serves a useful double purpose, making other writers look good and providing readers with sharp relief when they reach a page they know they can safely skip.

Although the theory could not have been further from the truth in Willie’s case, it helps explain some everyday mysteries. The unfunny cast member of an otherwise brilliant sitcom; the reliably incompetent junior minister; the midfielder scuttling about pointlessly in a football team; Ringo Starr: the reason why they are where they are is to provide a background of ordinariness against which their more talented colleagues will shine.

The one area in which the Donaldson Theory of Beneficial Incompetence would seem to fall down is education. Only a fool, we can surely assume, would actually advocate the presence of bad teachers, infecting future generations with their own peculiar form of badness (stupidity, cruelty, snobbery, idleness – the list is endless).

How wrong we would be. Zenna Atkins, chairman of the Office for Standards in Education, has recently championed the “shit teacher”, to use her own elegant phrase. “Every school should have a useless teacher,” she says. “If every primary school has one pretty naff teacher, this helps kids realise that even if you know the quality of authority is not good, you have to learn to play it.”

In the private sector of business, there was a need to “performance-manage 10 per cent of people of the business” (I think that means sack them), but the same standards should not apply to education. “One really good thing about primary school is that every kid learns how to deal with a shit teacher.” No one could deny that this is a revolutionary educational theory. The best way to teach young children the ways of the world is, it seems, to place them at the mercy of someone bored, miserable, angry or plain stupid. More often than not, this person will be the class teacher – that is, the inescapable, everyday face of authority and learning – for a year of their young lives.

Atkins is expressing her personal view rather than Ofsted policy, but it accords neatly to the way teaching is currently run. Over the past decade, a mere 18 teachers have been struck off for incompetence. The General Teaching Council has said there could be as many as 17,000 “sub-standard” teachers currently in the classroom.

The background to this mind-boggling tolerance of mediocrity is an odd attitude within the education establishment. Teachers, doing a difficult job, and sometimes on a low salary, have for decades seen themselves as above criticism. They have become prickly and self-important, often preferring to defend the indefensible rather than admit that those outside the profession – notably those hate-figures, the pushy parents – could be right.

Presumably Atkins looks back on her education with fond memories of the teachers who provided her with that invaluable lesson about the “quality of authority”, but I suspect few will share her nostalgia. My first school, which I attended between the ages of seven and 13, would have scored high on the shit-teacher graph. We emerged with the knowledge that adults can and usually will be violent, capricious, biased, mad and randy. Oddly, few of those who attended the school look back on those years with gratitude.

It is time for the standing of educators in society to upgraded, for teaching to be honoured and rewarded as a profession for the elite, not a cushy billet for the lazy or incompetent. The sub-standard should not be allowed to pass down a sour heritage of defeat and cynicism to future generations. As for a chair of the Office for Standards in Education who actually seems to be defending low standards in education, perhaps she might also be gently performance-managed out of the business.

Independent, Tuesday, 13 July 2010