So why aren’t teachers treated like doctors?

Here we have two different groups of well-educated, hard-working public service professionals, both providing invaluable front-line services to their local communities. Each year millions of pounds of public money is invested in preparing tens of thousands of new entrants to each role, for the challenging and technical careers ahead of them. Time and again surveys find that these two long-established professions are the pair that are most trusted by the public.

So why is it than one group can be told, sometimes in considerable detail, how to do their jobs by the least trusted profession – politicians? Why is it that one group has 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 to explain this difference is to do with evidence. A doctor can draw on their many years of structured training (including a grounding in science and maths), and also 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 then able to test and quantify the difference their intervention made, sharing the data and approaches with their peers, then telling a patient their temperature is normal or that they are ‘no longer sick’.

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

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 these differences between the two professions could be to do with the challenges of trying to improve (and then prove) your positive impact on the mental, rather than the physical state of others. Teaching is a relational and holistic process, involving 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. I suspect child mental health practitioners find a way to overcome all these challenges and don’t face the same challenges as teachers.

I’ll leave the debate (for now) about what we value as a society and the emphasis on the quantitative over the qualitative, the rational over the emotional, but it’s perhaps just worth mentioning that what is easier to measure is not necessarily more important.

I also wonder if doctors can’t learn a thing of two from teachers, with the growing emphasis on prevention over treatment, and upon health and wellbeing over just avoiding illness. Teachers know how and when to go beyond ‘narrow’ learning, to teach students holistically, such as using an exercise on the twelve times table to teach about working together and celebrating differences.

The other reasons that explain the difference between teachers and doctors are more systemic. Everybody has had extensive personal experience of education, but not necessarily 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 bankrupt, high-stakes accountability system we’ve ended up with. One that can incentivise teachers to shy away from some pupils, and leaders from some schools.

Teachers deserve a more nuanced and sophisticated approach, one that prioritises helping them to teach, rather than holding schools to account. Even a brief glance at NHS choices shows a more nuanced approach to what hospitals, GPs and even individual consultants have to report publicly. High stakes testing, simplistic grading and league tables aren’t improving standards, they’re harming our most precious resource, the school workforce. Would Google or John Lewis treat their staff this way?

There are alternatives though, with some lessons to be learned from doctors. For starters we should be making far more of peer-review, so that teaching professionals are holding each other to account, driving improvement for themselves.

We can also learn from the clear, structured and well-supported career pathways available to doctors. Our current salary structure in schools is a mess, we should be compensating teachers in line with other professions. Why does a qualified teacher earn about half that of a General Practitioner (GP)? Again these are decisions that we’ve made as a society and not necessarily what other countries have chosen.

There’s also scope to link greater responsibility and accountability with more recognition, autonomy and pay. We can learn much from the medical profession when it comes to offering a variety of motivating incentives and rewards to high performers. Our research shows that many middle leaders in schools are crying out for the meaningful development opportunities that doctors’ experience. For instance why don’t all teachers get ‘electives’, to go and teach, research and learn in other countries?

Lastly 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 managed these concerns to industrialise 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, both for students and teachers.

So next time the doctors vs teachers debate comes up, I hope you’ll have a good answer to the question. It’s an important and complex one, going to the heart of why education is so compelling and challenging.


(a version of this blog first appeared through my former day-job, for Schools Week)


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