Great teachers: attracting, training and retaining the best - Education Committee Contents

2  The impact and definition of outstanding teaching

The impact of the best teachers

22. It is a commonplace that everyone remembers their best teacher; indeed, similar slogans have been used frequently in the media, in teaching awards ceremonies, in personal memoirs, and in Government advertising campaigns. However, the profound and real impact which the best teachers have is less widely acknowledged.

23. There are of course many influences on a young person's life, of which school is one of the most controllable. To quote a recent Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) study: "the most important difference between the most and the least effective classrooms is the teacher".[21] Michael Barber and Mona Mourshed argue that "the evidence that getting the right people to become teachers is critical to high performance is both anecdotal and statistical", and quote a South Korean policymaker explicitly stating that "the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers".[22] Traditionally in the UK, emphasis has been put on the quality of schools, not least through Ofsted judgments, but the inspectorate itself has said that "the variability of the quality of teaching within schools" is "a persistent issue", as well as the more acknowledged variability between schools:[23] the former is, arguably, the real issue to be addressed, given the huge impact that individual teachers have on pupil performance.

24. More detailed studies have argued that that impact of a good or outstanding teacher, compared with a mediocre or poor one, is both tangible and dramatic. Research conducted by the Centre for Market and Public Organisation, commissioned by the Institute of Public Policy Research, and involving around 6,000 pupils and 300 teachers, found that "having an 'excellent' teacher compared with a 'bad' one can mean an increase of more than one GCSE grade per pupil per subject".[24]

25. A large study conducted by academics from Harvard and Columbia defined 'high value-added (VA)' teachers as those having the most positive impact on test scores, and discovered that students taught by such teachers were more likely to participate in further education, to attend better colleges, to earn higher salaries, and to save more for retirement; they were also less likely to have children as teenagers.[25] In salary terms, specifically, the research estimates that "a teacher who is in the top 5 percent [on the VA measure] [...] generates about $250,000 or more of additional earnings for their students over their lives in a single classroom of about 28 students"[26]—in essence, that one year of a brilliant teacher will increase their students' earning potential during their adulthoods. Other reputable research has produced similar findings: for example, Eric Hanushek (senior fellow at the Hoover Institute, Stanford University) estimates from his studies that a year of a good teacher (as opposed to an outstanding one) produces "an increase of $10,600 on each student's lifetime earnings", and that "even a modestly better than average teacher raises earnings by $5,300, compared to what would otherwise be expected".[27] Hanushek goes on to demonstrate that "there is a symmetry to these calculations", and that a very weak teacher (on the value-added definition) "will have a negative impact of $400,000 [across a class of twenty's lifetime earnings] compared to an average teacher".[28]

26. That impact has wider benefits than on the individual student and his or her own progress and attainment, because of the impact of higher salaries, savings and education on society more broadly—so much so that, in Hanushek's own words, "the estimated value almost loses any meaning".[29] Nonetheless, he argues that if the United States closed the achievement gap with Finland, the former's annual growth rate would increase by 1% of GDP: "accumulated over the lifetime of somebody born today, this [...] would amount to nothing less than an increase in total U.S. economic output of $112 trillion in present value".[30]

27. These figures are, as Hanushek himself admits, "subject to some uncertainty",[31] yet the key findings appear to support the general assumption, clear from the evidence we have taken from a wide range of adults and young people, that outstanding teachers have a profound impact on students' success, both at and after school, and that the recruitment and retention of those most likely to be outstanding teachers should therefore be firmly at the top of our education system's agenda. We note the work of the Sutton Trust in attempting to widen the UK research base in this field, through its current study on improving the impact of teachers on pupil performance.[32]

Defining 'the best'


28. If we accept that teachers can have profound and positive impacts as demonstrated in part by the research cited above, it is then more important to establish the qualities which the highest-performing teachers have in common with each other: once those qualities are clear, it becomes easier to design recruitment, training and retention policies aimed at the people who embody them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, coming up with a decisive list of qualities is a difficult and complex exercise: research has shown that that matching factors such as degree class and teaching experience with pupil performance is very difficult.[33] However, given the profound effects which teachers, both good and bad, can have on pupil performance, attempting the exercise is important.

29. Ofsted, which is responsible for inspecting teacher training provision as well as the quality of teaching in schools and colleges, told us what its inspectors look for:

An outstanding teacher generally has exceptionally strong subject knowledge and exceptionally good interactions with students and children, which will enable them to demonstrate their learning and build on their learning. They will challenge the youngster to extend their thinking to go way beyond the normal yes/no answer. They will be people who inspire, who develop a strong sense of what students can do and have no limits in terms of their expectations of students.[34]

30. Many of those qualities were also listed by the young people we met in York, Rugby and London during the course of our inquiry. They added others, including the ability to innovate and make lessons engaging, and to keep discipline in the classroom. Dr John Moss, Dean of Education at Canterbury Christ Church University, argued that an interest in working with children, despite seeming obvious, was not always forthcoming in candidates, though it was clearly crucial.[35]

31. Dr Moss also praised the Teach First core competencies, which he said offered a "very good list" of the key personal attributes found in the best teachers.[36] Teach First, which recruits high-performing graduates to train on-the-job in challenging schools, assesses applicants in eight areas alongside their formal academic criteria:

  • Humility, respect and empathy;
  • Interaction;
  • Knowledge;
  • Leadership;
  • Planning and organising;
  • Problem-solving;
  • Resilience; and
  • Self-evaluation.[37]

Other witnesses commended this list, and lent particular support to the inclusion of resilience: Angela Milner, from Ofsted, argued that this was "a very important characteristic" of good classroom teachers as well as school leaders.[38] The 2007 McKinsey study, How the world's best performing school systems come out on top, suggests a shorter list of pre-identifiable attributes used by leading countries to assess suitability for teaching: "a high overall level of literacy and numeracy, strong interpersonal and communication skills, a willingness to learn and the motivation to teach".[39]


32. The Government has expressed a desire to "raise the expectations of the academic achievement of trainees",[40] and has pursued this by introducing a new bursary scheme for teacher trainees, to take effect from 2012. Under that scheme, higher levels of financial support will be awarded to trainees with higher degree classes, or with degrees in particular 'priority' subjects. The Schools Minister explained that trainees with lower class degrees will not be excluded from applying for teacher training, but that the bursary scheme is designed "to incentivise graduates" with higher class degrees or in shortage subjects; other applicants can still "apply for all the student loans to pay tuition fees regardless of [their] degree class" (and provided they have been accepted onto a course), but will not receive bursaries.[41]

Fig. 5: Financial incentive scheme for trainee teachers, 2012-13
Trainee's degree class Physics, mathematics, chemistry, modern languages Other secondary priority subjects[42]; all primary trainees General science; non-priority secondary subjects[43]
First£20,000 £9,000£0
2.1£15,000 £5,000
2.2£12,000 £0

Source: DfE Improvement strategy, p. 5

33. The Government has said that the scheme "will give flexibility in exceptional circumstances for trainees to receive a higher bursary than their degree class would otherwise allow", citing trainees who have gained "exceptional subject knowledge" during a previous career, or who have a doctorate.[44] The scheme does not take into account the differences between the academic demands or reputations of individual universities, just that of individual trainees, although as witness Emma Knights of the NGA pointed out to us:

We all know that in some cases a 2.2 from a particular university is perhaps worth more academically, or should be possibly, than 2.1 from somewhere else [...] if you have absolutely rigid criteria, you can't take that into consideration.[45]

Ms Knights also suggested that the scheme could be seen as implying that "primary was not as important as secondary", because of the lower bursaries offered,[46] but Michael Day of the Training and Development Agency explained to the Committee that the levels are set purely because "it is much easier [...] to recruit high quality people into primary teaching than it is into the shortage subjects".[47] Based on the general application figures, we accept that this is the case.

34. We heard considerable debate around the level of subject knowledge required by teachers, and how this equated to both their academic background and their skill in the classroom. Evidence from around the world suggests that degree class can be a useful 'initial sieve', prior to teacher training, to ensure that graduates have strong subject knowledge and solid academic credentials. Moreover, setting a high academic bar sends a clear signal that this is a difficult profession to enter, thus raising its status. For example, South Korean teachers are generally recruited from the top 5% of the graduate cohort, those in Finland from the top 10%, and in Singapore and Hong Kong from the top 30%.[48] All four of those countries are ranked significantly above the OECD average for students' reading and mathematics, where the UK is around the average for both.[49]

35. Despite the policies suggested by that international evidence, witnesses to our inquiry—whilst generally minded that, in the words of one organisation, "the better qualified the teaching profession is the more effective it will be"[50]—were sceptical that degree class equated to ability in the classroom. Ofsted said it knew of "no firm evidence to support the view that those with the highest degree classifications make the best teachers", a statement supported by Keele University which argued that "some the highest-quality teachers" it had produced "have had degrees at 2.2 or lower".[51] That opinion was backed up by teachers attending a private seminar with the Committee to launch the inquiry, all of whom were outstanding practitioners and several of whom had lower class degrees.[52]

36. Looking at the academic research, some studies have suggested that strength of subject knowledge—which, as teachers speaking to us acknowledged, is very likely to have been gained through a degree—can play a role in determining a teacher's future abilities and impact. For example, the IPPR cites a study of almost 3,000 students in 2005, which found that "students taught by the most knowledgeable teachers (the top 5 per cent) learned around 25 per cent faster than the student taught by the least knowledgeable".[53]

37. Of course, no sensible person would suggest that having a good degree automatically makes you a good teacher. Strong subject knowledge is necessary but not sufficient, and this is exactly the approach taken by the world's best-performing schools systems, as identified by the OECD, McKinsey and Co., the Sutton Trust and others. Similarly, though, it does not appear sensible to suggest that the strong subject knowledge (and indeed other qualities such as application, as Mary Bousted suggested to us)[54] symbolised by a high degree class are irrelevant to teacher quality, which is recognised by the DfE's new bursary proposals. Indeed, we can argue the case no better than former 'Jamie's Dream School' student Nana Kwame who, when asked in oral evidence to us whether personality or subject knowledge mattered more in a teacher, replied:

You can't really pick between the two [...] the one with no personality is [...] going to know what he's talking about, but everyone's going to be bored of him, so they're not going to listen. On the other hand, if that guy's got a good personality, but don't have a clue what he's doing, we will not learn anything [...][55]

38. However, the balance between depth and breadth of subject knowledge required will naturally differ for different phases of education. Secondary school students in York viewed primary school teaching as harder than secondary, because so many subjects have to be covered and because of the constant energy required in lessons. Without placing comparative value on either phase, Martin Thompson—president of the National Association of School Based Teacher Trainers—agreed that the qualities required in a great teacher "might vary with the age of the children they are going to teach",[56] and Emma Knights of the National Governors' Association suggested that subject knowledge was part of that: "when it comes to A-level, parents would want somebody with a good degree teaching their children, but [for] nursery provision, it would be very different."[57]

39. We acknowledge that the Government's policy of raising the academic threshold for entry to teacher training may give a boost to the status of the profession, as evidenced abroad. We welcome the Government's bursary scheme, trust that it will attract more people to consider the profession, and acknowledge the need to skew incentives towards subjects in which it is difficult to recruit. However, we caution that this alone will not do the job. Whilst bursaries will help to attract people with strong academic records, greater effort is also needed to identify which subset of these also possess the additional personal qualities that will make them well-suited to teaching. This is a key theme of this report that we will return to later.

40. We do, however, question the use of degree class as the determinant of bursary eligibility for primary school teachers. For this phase of education, a redesign of the criteria towards breadth of knowledge (at GCSE and A Level) may be more appropriate. Again, this of course needs to be complemented by a thorough testing of suitability as a teacher, as part of the course admissions process.


41. Evidence is clear that outstanding teachers at all phases can have a profound positive impact on pupils' performance, which in turn leads to better outcomes in further education, pay, wellbeing, and for society at large. Similarly, the negative impact of the teachers who add the least value to their pupils is very significant. Having weak teachers in the classroom is, therefore, detrimental not just to pupils' achievement that academic year but to their, and hence the country's, future prospects.

42. However, as discussed above, there is no clear formula for an 'outstanding' teacher and, although good subject knowledge, overall academic ability and a range of personal and inter-personal skills are vital, the evidence is similarly clear that no one factor (including degree class) correlates to performance in the classroom and thus to impact on pupil performance. We have been surprised by the lack of research into the qualities found to make for effective teaching, including any potential link between degree class and performance. Overall, the research base in both directions is fairly scant and could usefully be replenished with new methodologically-sound research looking at UK teachers and schools, both primary and secondary, which we recommend that the Government commission with some urgency.

21   Margo, J., Benton, M., Withers, K., and Sodha, S., with Tough, S., Those who can? (Institute for Public Policy Research, 2008), p. 58, citing Monk, D. 'Subject area preparation of secondary mathematics and science teachers and student achievement', Economics of Education Review, Vol. 13(2), pp. 125-145 (1994) Back

22   Barber, M., and Mourshed, M., How the world's best-performing school systems come out on top (McKinsey & Co., September 2007), p. 16 Back

23   Annual Report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Education, Children's Services and Skills, 2010-11, p. 54 Back

24   Margo et al., Those who can? (Institute for Public Policy Research, 2008), p. 50, citing Slater, H., Davies, N., and Burgess, S., A note on estimating the variation in teacher effectiveness in England (Bristol, CMPO, 2007). The methodology behind this study, including the methods for defining teacher quality, are explained in Margo & al on pp. 49 and 50. See also Ev w88 and citations. Back

25   Chetty, R., Friedman, J., and Rockoff, J., The Long-Term Impact of Teachers: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood (National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, Working Paper 17699, December 2011). The study looked at test data for 2.5 million children and linked it to tax records, containing data on the students' subsequent earnings, income, savings, family situation and further education, and thus allowing the researchers to "track a large group of individuals from elementary school to early adulthood". Back

26   Raj Chetty, interviewed by Ray Suarez for PBS News hour, 6 January 2012 (transcript available at Back

27   Hanushek, E., 'How much is a good teacher worth?', Education Next (Summer 2011) Back

28   IbidBack

29   IdemBack

30   IdemBack

31   IdemBack

32   The study's interim findings were published in September 2011. Back

33   See, for example, Sutton Trust, Improving the impact of teachers on pupil achievement in the UK-interim findings (September 2011), citing Aaronson & al 2007; qq. 146-147 (Kevin Mattinson); and various submissions to our inquiry such as Ev w88, and including that offered at seminars with practising and trainee teachers Back

34   Q 524 (Jean Humphrys) Back

35   See Q 66 Back

36   IdemBack

37   See Ev 169. The evidence submitted to our inquiry by Teach First did not suggest that the competency-based assessment procedures in place give priority to any particular competency nor that teachers skilled in any particular competency are more likely to be high performers in the classroom.  Back

38   Q 545 Back

39   Barber and Mourshed 2007, p17 Back

40   DfE Improvement strategy, p. 5 Back

41   Qq. 691 and 696 (Nick Gibb MP) Back

42   Priority specialisms are art and design, design and technology, economics, engineering, English, dance, drama, geography, history, information and communications technology, computer science, classics, music, biology, physical education, and religious education. List taken from DfE Implementation plan, p. 8. Back

43   Non-priority specialisms are business studies, citizenship, applied science, health and social care, leisure and tourism, media studies, psychology, and social sciences (except economics). Source as above. Back

44   Ibid., p. 6 Back

45   Q 122 Back

46   Q 119 Back

47   Q 6 Back

48   Barber and Mourshed 2007, p. 16 Back

49   See PISA world rankings, 2009, available at Back

50   Ev 147 Back

51   EV 165 Back

52   A note of the seminar, including the delegates' views on degree class and teaching ability, can be found at Annex 1. Back

53   See Margo et al 2008, p. 52, citing Hill (2005) and Wiliam (2007) Back

54   Q 238 Back

55   Q 20, in oral evidence to the Education Committee, 21 June 2011 (HC 1169) Back

56   Q 66 Back

57   Q 118 Back

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