The furore surrounding the news – which James broke on Coffee House this afternoon – that academies will now be able to employ teachers who are not qualified was so brilliantly predictable that we could have written the unions’ press releases for them. Christine Blower of the National Union of Teachers slammed it as a ‘clear dereliction of duty’ and a ‘cost-cutting measure that will cause irreparable damage to children’s education’.

Blower and her union colleagues are not clear why education will be so badly damaged by this, though. Top schools in the private sector regularly employ staff who have gone through no formal training at all. But parents have to pay for this privilege: it is not available to them in the state system.

The unions also seem to forget that in some of the grittiest state schools in our country, pupils are already being taught by graduates who have spent just six weeks in a summer school before being let loose in the classroom, without the prized qualified teacher status. That’s Teach First, the scheme set up by the previous government for ‘high-flying’ graduates, who only achieve QTS at the end of their first year of teaching. Based in some of the toughest schools in the country, it’s not known for being a gentle introduction to teaching, and gives the lie to the argument that unqualified teachers only flourish in private schools where the pupils behave impeccably. If a 22-year-old Cambridge graduate can survive a rowdy class of year 9s in a state school in Brixton, then it’s not an enormous step to accept this latest reform.

Then there’s the Graduate Teacher Programme and School-Centred Initial Teacher Training, both of which are aimed at those who have been working for a number of years post-graduation and who aren’t entirely sold on returning to university for a year. Both programmes offer early immersion into life at one school.

This isn’t saying that there is anything intrinsically wrong with PGCEs and other qualifications. They are enormously helpful in giving teachers the theory behind behaviour management, special needs provision and curriculum requirements. If a school is interviewing two candidates of equal ability, it’s sensible to pick the one with the extra teaching qualification as it adds value. But to prevent a school employing a candidate with an outstanding CV – a PhD, first-class bachelor’s degree, or professional success – who is so clearly gifted in the classroom above a less impressive qualified teacher is unfair.

Perhaps the unions are worried about their own members who already hold QTS. If they are, they are siding with the wrong people: the children should come first in this debate, and the most important thing is the quality of the teacher. As Fraser blogged recently, the education debate in this country should focus on the children, not the adults involved, but it currently doesn’t.

Richard Cairns is head master of Brighton College. He believes that ‘teachers are born not made’, and speaks from experience: he has no formal teaching qualifications, and neither do 39 of his teachers. That hasn’t stopped the school rising to 18th in the rankings.

That’s all very well for Brighton College. But this freedom shouldn’t be confined to a tiny section of our education system which only the privileged few can afford. If it works for the top-performing schools in the country, then why does the state sector deserve anything different?

Tags: Education reform, Schools, Trade Unions, UK politics