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Do MFL teachers need good degrees?

I read in The Guardian today that applications from students to PGCE courses are slow this year, although in subjects where extra financial incentives have been made available (e.g. languages and physics), applications have risen. This is all in the context of the governments attempt to raise the status of the teaching profession by giving higher grants to students with a 2.1 or First and not allowing students with third class honours to apply at all.

Not sure what you think about that, but I understand that research indicates that there is little or no correlation between a teacher's degree classification and the quality of a teacher's results. The argument is obvious: good teaching depends more on communication skills and effective pedagogy than pure subject knowledge. We all know of very bright people who are not great teachers.

I have to confess, however, that when I look at a CV, the degree classification and university is something which carries weight with me. Why? In a selective school with a fair number of able linguists I expect a teacher to have very good language skills. Students need good language models and if a teacher is not very fluent or knowledgeable there can be a loss of credibility and effectiveness. From a young applicant I like to see a 2.1 at least and I also like to see high A-level results. But on interview day, other factors will come into play, and teaching skill will trump academic qualification.

I wonder whether in some subject areas academic excellence is more vital than in others. Does MFL fall into this category?

Will the government's preference for higher class degrees raise the status of the profession? The Finnish model suggests there may be something in this. In Finland, teachers are paid reasonably well, but have high status and competition for jobs is intense. Only the brightest students become teachers. If we are to trust PISA, outcomes for Finnish pupils are thought to be high.

But isn't there something a bit crude about using degree classification as a basis for selecting PGCE students? Is a 2.2 of equal worth from every university? Is a 2.2. in MFL of the same worth as a 2.2 in English literature or maths? Should a really gifted educator with a 2.2 receive less support than a bright student with average teaching potential? What about the 2.2 student who has lived for an extended period in France and become highly fluent? What about the PGCE candidate in experienced middle age who wishes to change profession? And what about the native speaker?

We need more sophisticated means of identifying potentially brilliant teachers, pay teachers more than adequately to show we value them and to give them the time, training and resources to excel.

I doubt whether the government's policy on degrees will raise the social status or quality of teachers. This stems from something more fundamental: how much we value education as a country.


  1. Interestingly some of the best MFL teachers that I have seen often have a TEFL qualification, and have developed a great understanding of their craft from teaching techniques that work on these courses. They may not have the highest qualifications, indeed some may not even be degreed, but they have an empathy with students. Teaching is about passion and getting on well with students - and that is not always found in teachers with first class honours degrees!

  2. I quite agree. Thank you for the comment.

  3. In terms of applications for MFL we are well down this year Steve, financial incentive or not. We are expected to recruit 25 trainees and to date have 12. Prospective trainees drop out at the last minute, occasionally don't tell us if they are attending interview or not and we have had to reject a potentially great native French boy on the basis that his degree from France held a 3rd equivalent...Interesting times.

  4. That's disappointing. I'm curious about how they decide on the value of a French degree. Seems ludicrous that a native speaker would not get the chance to train. In this difficult economic period you might also expect more PGCE candidates given the job market is so tough.

  5. You make a logical assumption that in an economic period such as this teaching would be an attractive proposition. However, with the government as it is, and the status of the teaching profession at an all time low, along with the fact that a good graduate can earn literally twice as much as a teacher by choosing accounting (and getting paid to train, rather than going into more student debt as you would with a PGCE), it is one of the least attractive prospects out there. I say this as a relatively recent graduate (2006) and someone who has taught ever since. There is no way that I would recommend teaching to anyone at the moment.

    As to the question of whether a teacher should have a good degree - I agree that in MFL at least it is of utmost importance that a teacher knows their stuff. There is no such thing as 'brushing up on the content of the syllabus' that may exist In other subject areas. I also agree that there is a great discrepancy between universities and that this cannot and should not be the main factor in the decision to short list or appoint someone.

  6. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    I would only add that that teaching is an attractive option if you really enjoy teaching! Secondly, the long term benefits include reasonable job security and a good pension (still).

    Not so sure about the status of the profession at the moment.Just because Mr Gove is riling us all at the moment may not influence public opinion too much.

    I'd like to look into some evidence on that one.


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