Testing Times: Are the Professional Skills Tests Necessary?


Paul offers his opinion on the news that the Department for Education plan to scrap professional skills tests in order to ease the teacher recruitment crisis.

Tests… only the masochists among us actually like them! However, there’s a grudging acceptance that they are, to some extent at least, useful and required.

For many teachers, the last tests sat would have been the professional skills tests required for QTS. English trainees having to sit a numeracy test and maths trainees having to sit a literacy test was enough to tip some over the edge in the Sturm und Drang of the PGCE year. While sympathising with the Shakespeare enthusiast who couldn’t quite make their sums add up and the maths whizz who misplaced apostrophes, the skills tests are pitched at a basic, functional level to ensure professional competence. That’s the idea in principle as being able to pass those tests are a good marker for handling data spreadsheets or communicating in writing with parents.

Schools Week have reported, however, that the tests are set to be scrapped in order to ease the recruitment crisis. According to figures from the Department for Education, at least 3,500 candidates a year have failed the tests since 2012. If one of the core objectives of tests is to check an ability to cope with future demands, is it not a good thing that unsuitable candidates are rooted out early? After all, there is an ample number of qualified teachers now making a living elsewhere so it is more specifically a retention crisis than a recruitment crisis that the profession faces. Axing a couple of tests is not going to solve the lack of respect and status afforded to teachers. Quite the opposite in fact. At a time of educational obsession with raising standards, lowering the standards required for graduates to access the profession seems a mighty paradox.

It could be argued that being a graduate in itself makes one qualified. The argument against this is two-fold. One: as the number of people attending university has risen, what it means to be degree-educated has lessened – even if standards have indeed risen overall, the law of averages dictates this. Two: most degrees indicate specialism in a particular subject – this might be permissible in secondary classrooms but even there, one could argue that you need to be a bit of an all-rounder, adopting a cross-curricular approach to engage and inform; if maths and English are being taught in primary classrooms by graduates without basic literacy and numeracy skills then that’s just storing up headaches for their secondary colleagues.

Having already advocated the early identification of unsuitable candidates, surely one step to making these tests more ‘fit for purpose’ would be to bring them forward. Some find the biggest panic is actually trying to book in for them at the tail-end of teacher training! And if you’ve completed gruelling placements teaching languages, history, geography or PE, then it does seem punitive to be failed at the very end on the basis of a short literacy or numeracy test. Making the passing of these tests a condition of entry to initial teacher training would guard against disappointment and waste.

If, on the other hand, the purpose of scrapping the tests is simply to save money and make sure there are enough bodies in classrooms, then we’re another step along the road to UTS (Unqualified Teacher Status).

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