Who needs qualifications?

November 20, 2013

Independent columnist Mark Steel celebrates the unique benefits of the unregulated free schools that Britain's Conservative Party government is setting up.

AS THE use of unqualified teachers in free schools has proved such a success, surely the British government must extend this method to other workplaces, such as operating rooms and nuclear submarines. The Royal Navy could use the same argument as Education Secretary Michael Gove, insisting there are plenty of excellent candidates who could command a nuclear sub because they fired torpedoes in the "Modern Warfare 2" video game, but they're put off by the red tape of having to prove they're "qualified," leaving our coast unprotected.

So anyone with initiative will be able to set up a "free submarine," with a grant for nuclear warheads. As with free schools, the odd one may go astray when it emerges that it's stuck in the sewers under Plymouth, or the captain invaded Eastbourne, but at least the dead hand of state interference will be off their backs.

Then they could start on space stations. Think how many people would love to be astronauts, but are put off by having to "qualify," by learning how to float here and make funny breathing noises there.

Education Secretary Michael Gove
Education Secretary Michael Gove (Paul Clarke)

One argument in defense of unqualified teachers--used by people such as Toby Young, who has set up a free school--is that forcing them to qualify will "drive them into the private sector." We can only guess how many potentially wonderful teachers have been lost to us this way, after a conversation that went like this:

"Hello, is that the school? I'd like to be a teacher."

"Certainly. You'll need to be qualified."

"In that case, bollocks to you, I'll go and run a hedge fund for Goldman Sachs instead."

To be fair, the same process is happening in the fire departments. Outdated rules that compel their employees to have a "certificate" proving they know how to carry people through smoke force countless potential firefighters into the private sector, where they make far more money operating on livers at a free intensive care unit.

That's why we need a new system, in which anyone public-spirited enough can apply to run a free fire rescue service. How comforting it would be, as you were yelling from an upstairs window with your children surrounded by flames, if instead of some dull regulated fire engine, you saw Toby Young, with a ladder sticking out of his Audi A8.

London's Mayor Boris Johnson has mentioned that some of the best teachers he had weren't officially qualified. This may be true, just as there are people who have never passed a driving test who can drive a car. Gas engineers, deep-sea divers, parachutists--in every profession, there are some people without the qualification who are better than some people with it.

So away with the rules requiring them. The Dignitas clinic for assisted suicide can announce that their new councilor hasn't done any training as such, but never mind, as they're ever so enthusiastic and very jolly in the mornings. At last, bomb disposal units won't have to ponce about, waiting for someone to pass a test, but welcome recruits who say: "I'm not exactly qualified, but I've always been one for fiddling with wires."

In any case, Boris Johnson's experience may not be typical, because if he was behind on religious studies, his parents probably got the Archbishop of Canterbury to pop round and finish his essay.

ONE COMPLAINT about qualified teachers is that there aren't enough of them, especially in math, which is why it makes sense to get unqualified ones. It's similar to when you go to the shop for a toaster, but they haven't got any that work, so you do the sensible thing, and buy a broken one instead.

Another approach might be to work out why that teachers' shortage has come about. It could be argued that it's become harder to recruit qualified teachers, as they've gone several years without a pay rise, had their pensions reduced and been told they can't retire until they're 68. But this is another reason for recruiting teachers who aren't qualified. If you employ math teachers who are so useless they can't work out that they're getting less money for working three extra years, they're more likely to stay in the job.

The puzzling part is that in every other area of education, this government is more obsessed with exam results and qualifications than ever. They measure every other aspect of schooling with league tables and strictly ordered point systems. No minister is likely to suggest that a student who fails her geography exam is "just as qualified as those who passed--after all, she picked a winning Russian town on Pointless, and we don't want to let that sort of talent drift off to the private sector."

It may be that they simply wish every part of society to be governed by the free market. The consumer must decide which schools have the best teachers, and education will improve as a result.

And you can see their thinking, because if you look at today's Britain, it's obvious that the more you leave enterprises alone with no regulation, the better they do. We let the banks do as they please, and they did us proud. We let the press do whatever it wanted, and it's not had a single problem. We've allowed energy companies to behave as they like, and if anything, they're TOO generous.

So let's encourage schools to be run by businessmen however they fancy. What could possibly go wrong?

First published at the Independent.

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