Is teaching experience necessary?

Professor Colin Richards raises the question as to whether teaching experience is necessary for those running national educational organisations or playing a major role in education research…

Currently Ofsted is advertising for someone to lead and coordinate research projects but does not require experience of teaching or inspection as a prerequisite. Fair enough? Ofsted’s Director of Research has no school teaching or inspection experience… reasonable, perhaps? Ofsted’s Chief Inspector had no direct experience as a teacher or inspector before appointment. Not absolutely necessary (as I myself have argued in the past)? But shouldn’t one at least have that kind of experience if Ofsted is to be the research-based but education-oriented organisation its Chief Inspector claims?

But Ofsted is not alone in this. The head of Ofqual has no such experience. Nor indeed have any current ministers of education, though that’s not unusual. I don’t know the background of the most senior civil servants in the DfE, though I have my suspicions. For any individual it may not matter but for none of them to have such experience surely matters? Or does it?

Of course they can seek advice and I am sure they do. But what kind of advice and on what basis? Are their advisers drawing on intelligence from schools collected and collated by people visiting them on a daily basis? Are these visitors visiting with an open mind rather than with foreordained agendas, frameworks or schedules? Can they detect “clouds no bigger than a man’s hand” – issues that only just making themselves known and felt but could well be of future significance? Are they collecting evidence about the impact (positive/negative, anticipated/unanticipated) of official policies ? Are their advisers, especially if they are ‘special advisers” able and willing to speak “without fear or favour”? How would we know?

This short piece has been full of questions but that’s because I am genuinely puzzled how this situation has come about and how far it matters.

The teacher in me wants to argue that it matters a lot. Teaching and learning need to be understood by those making or influencing education policy and by those responsible for its inspection and research ; they also need to be felt. I accept that a degree of understanding is possible without the experience but only a degree.

But the felt aspects of teaching and inspection are impossible to appreciate without direct experience. For example how can anyone really appreciate the reality of primary class teaching, the impact of official initiatives and policies and the stress of inspection if they haven’t felt the huge weight of responsibility of being responsible, or almost entirely so for the education of young minds over the course of a school year or even longer? The same would apply to the difficulty of understanding and feeling the pressures a secondary specialist faces with their responsibility for fostering the learning of the hundred and more students they encounter during any one week.

We, and policy-makers, neglect the felt aspects of teaching at our peril. That felt experience cannot be fabricated, cannot be experienced at second hand; cannot be captured in civil-service prose. So some at least of major education decision-makers and researchers need it, don’t they?


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Categories: Columnists and Teaching.


  1. You obviously do not understand at all. The vast majority of the extremely important people you refer to actually saw teaching for themselves when they were children at private schools. How dare you suggest they might need any more intelligence than that – what is the matter with you???

  2. Miss B

    I have the same concern for school governance. The majority of governing bodies have no experience in education aside from their own as a child and worse still, many governors have not spent time in the school they govern during the school day – yet it is them who collectively set policies and make decision concerning where the budget is to be allocated.

  3. wasateacher

    The attitude that ‘we have all been to school….’ and are all, therefore, able to decide on what constitute the important things in education is as false as saying that I regularly shop in, say, Tesco and am, therefore, qualified to run a supermarket. Anyone who has worked in education will know that even moving from one school to another may need a different approach. As a retired Maths teacher, I would say that teaching itself is an art, not a science – although, clearly, the outcome has to be kept very firmly in mind.

    It is absolute evidence that the wrong people are involved in running schools that it is even considered that those with no experience should be completely involved in education. That said, there should be a mixture: parents, employers, academics and teachers (plus students?)

  4. I’ve always thought I could offer advice, guidance and leadership in medicine. After all, I have had two short spells in hospital having babies, my husband had an operation 3 years ago and I have watched a number of operations on TV. Also I often look up obscure medical symptoms on the internet. I think I’d do really well directing doctors and surgeons and telling them where they’re going wrong.

  5. Norman Thomas

    It is vital that at least one of those organising research into school education has experience in teaching in, preferably, more than one school of the type being researched. The reason for this is concerned with the questions to be prioritised and the complexity of the issues involved. The presentation of the results also requires an understanding of the complexity of the issues. For example basing the results on average scores is rarely helpful.

  6. Victoria Jaquiss

    “We, and policy-makers, neglect the felt aspects of teaching at our peril” – we suffer, the teachers and the children suffer and ultimately the country suffers,

  7. It took my being a teacher for 23 years, and my husband to recently start working as Technician in a secondary school, before he got what teachers do. So yes, I think leaders and decision makers in education need a teaching background!

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