Why aren’t teachers treated more like doctors?

After all, they both top any poll for the most trustworthy professions. Perhaps it’s because everyone knows how to teach . . . don’t they?

Teachers and doctors are well-educated, hard-working public service professionals providing invaluable frontline services. Each year millions of pounds is invested in preparing tens of thousands new entrants to each profession, both of which top surveys on the roles most trusted by the public.

So why is it that one group can be told, sometimes in considerable detail, how to do their jobs by the least trusted profession – politicians? Why does only one group have a lower bar to entry, is trained less, gets paid less, is given less autonomy and, as a result, is less likely to be satisfied, want to go for a promotion or to stay in the job long term?

The first, and perhaps most obvious answer, is to do with evidence. Doctors can draw on their many years of structured training, and upon a largely accepted body of peer-reviewed journals and multiple randomised trials to inform what they should do with a patient. They’re often able to test and quantify the difference their intervention makes, share data with peers, then tell a patient their temperature is normal or that they are “no longer sick”.

Compare that to teachers. They will have experienced less and more varied training, and face a more complex and contested landscape of evidence about the best way to achieve different learning outcomes for different students. Those outcomes are also personal to students and currently only measured in the crudest of terms. The resources and insights generated from teaching are often not even shared across the school, let alone wider. And it’s not really acceptable to say to a student that his or her learning is normal or that they’re “no longer thick”.

Teachers should be holding each other to account

This isn’t an argument for apathy or hand-wringing; the teaching profession is already taking hold of evidence, standards and outcomes for itself. Most promisingly through the emerging College of Teaching – but also through the efforts of the Education Endowment Foundation, universities, ResearchED, CUREE, teaching schools, the Teacher Development Trust and others.

To an extent the differences between the two professions could be to do with the challenges of trying to improve (and prove) a positive impact on the mental, rather than the physical state of others. Teaching involves a personal, long-term connection with each “whole student”. Some doctors rarely meet conscious patients, some only meet them once and others see the greatest “efficacy” by prescribing medicines.

That said, I wonder if doctors can’t learn a thing or two from teachers with the growing emphasis on prevention over treatment, on health and wellbeing over avoiding illness. Teachers know how and when to go beyond “narrow” learning and can teach holistically.

The other reasons that explaining the differences are more systemic. Everybody has had extensive experience of education, but not of healthcare. It is also an inherently political activity, with values often necessarily bundled in with the learning. These two factors probably go some way to explain the problematic accountability system we’ve ended up with.

Teachers deserve a more nuanced and sophisticated approach. High stakes testing, simplistic grading and league tables aren’t improving standards, they’re harming our most precious resource: the school workforce.

There are also lessons to be learned from doctors. For starters we should be making far more of peer-review, so that teachers are holding each other to account, driving improvement for themselves.

We also need clearer career structures and should be compensating teachers in line with other professions. Why does a qualified teacher earn about half that of a GP?

Last, teachers should be helped to safely plan and trial new approaches. Nobody dies if a lesson goes badly and everybody can still learn from the experience if it’s evaluated properly, yet it’s the medical profession that has industrialised innovation. Nobody wants their children to be guinea pigs but if done right, a more structured approach to trialling different teaching and CPDL methods could be powerful, for students and teachers.

Louis Coiffait is chief executive of NAHT Edge

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