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Degrees dishonoured

The future of the four-year BEd is in jeopardy now that the Government plans to pay salaries to PGCE trainees - but cutting off this route into the profession is a big mistake, writes Mike Newby.

THE quality and supply of teachers, particularly those destined for the primary sector, has been threatened by the Government's decision not to pay salaries to BEd students.

The Government has not openly criticised the BEd; nor has the Teacher Training Agency. But this route into teaching has not been without its critics; their case often centring on the fact that some BEd students come into higher education with a low A-level point score - even though they leave with degrees no worse than those of other students. They argue that it isn't a "real" degree because the element of subject study in it is less extensive than in a BA or BSc - even though the elements of professional training, the study of educational ideas and reflection on experience in the classroom extend further than in any postgraduate certificate in education.

But sovereign among these arguments is the idea that education is not worthy of study at a university: that it is bogus, that its base of theory is questionable and that its values - child-centred, uncompetitive, liberal - are sentimental. Better that teachers have the security of a conventional degree behind them before embarking on a ferociously intensive training programme - nine months and you're ready - that allows Government planners to respond swiftly to fluctuations in teacher supply.

Such positions - now given greater credibility by the omission of the BEd from training salaries - will be put to the test in the coming years. But the idea that the teaching profession should have its own degree may yet prove resilient.

We can test the value of the BEd by imagining its absence. Forgetting for a while those other routes currently being developed by the Government - modular PGCEs, employment-based programmes - we must envisage a situation in which the majority of primary teachers prepare for their careers through the nine-month PGCE.

Since half or more of a student's programme would take place in school, has anyone asked if the schools could cope? Probably, they could not. For the school year to run in accordance with children's needs, schedules must be school-centred and not PGCE-centred. And while a small number of trainees is manageable, the transfer of cohorts of trainees could swamp schools and cause them to opt out of valuable partnerships. By contrast, BEd programmes can be paced over four years and can work in harmony with schools and students alike.

Then there is the cost. If we compare the final year of the BEd and the PGCE, there is no question that PGCE courses are more expensive. A PGCE course will last eght weeks longer than the final year of a BEd - and those extra weeks don't come cheap.

There is also the question of access. The BEd has been especially popular among people who lack the qualifications conventionally required of more typical entrants to higher education. It is always dangerous to stereotype, but primary BEd degrees have offered non-graduate women in particular an attractive option: the chance to read for a degree and train for a profession at the same time - perhaps after their own children have started school. If the BEd were to fade away, it is likely that such people would find it more difficult to enter the profession via the PGCE route, in which case we would lose many excellent teachers from our schools.

Other tests of the value of the undergraduate route into teaching should weigh its intrinsic merits, such as its thoroughness and the commitment of its students. Those coming on to the BEd are likely to be committed to teaching early on in their careers. To begin a four-year programme that will give them both an honours degree and qualified-teacher status is a serious, long-term commitment and is not an option that is taken lightly. And now this commitment is being undermined.

As for thoroughness, we need to measure the qualities of any degree programme against its aims. The BEd is designed to do two things: to offer its students a thoroughgoing experience of higher education, with work in a chosen subject at the same level as their peers on other degree programmes; also to prepare them for teaching through a programme of reading, writing, discussion and - above all - professional practice. In addition, final-year BEd students will usually complete a substantial, research-based project on some aspect of education.

Thus, BEd graduates learn to go deep. It is characteristic of headteachers in primary schools to report that BEd graduates take up their first posts with real enthusiasm, knowledge, understanding and professional skill. After all, they have already been teaching for four years. As one new primary teacher said to me recently: "I'm enjoying my new job very much. I'm glad I did the BEd and not the PGCE to get there - I know I've done the thing properly."

The Government's announcement, welcome though it is in some ways, threatens an important source of well-trained and well-educated people. It will make this route into teaching much less attractive than the more costly, though briefer, PGCE.

While two of the Government watchwords on teacher recruitment are flexibility and diversity of routes, it is surprising that it is now prepared to endanger one of the most important. Ministers would do well to reconsider.

Professor Mike Newby is chair of the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers

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