Empty chairs top teacher trainers' shaky pyramid

Some of the most senior academic posts in prestigious teacher-training institutions are lying vacant because of an acute shortage of suitably qualified education lecturers.

Professor Margaret Brown of King's College London drew attention to the latest recruitment crisis to hit teacher education, in her presidential address to last weekend's conference of the British Educational Research Association in York. She said that some colleges had advertised unsuccessfully for chairs of education while others had spared themselves disappointment by leaving professorships unfilled.

"I have recently been on the appointing committee for four chairs of education and one readership, all in relatively prestigious universities. In four out of these five cases it was not possible to make an appointment since it was deemed that there were either insufficient candidates of the appropriate quality to draw up a shortlist, or because after the interviews it was judged that none of the candidates was appointable," Professor Brown told the conference.

"I also know of at least three established chairs of education where the holders are retiring and where it was decided that it was not even worth advertising for a replacement in the same specialism."

Professor Brown acknowledged that there were other specialist areas of education where it was still possible to make good appointments but added that there were also shortages of high-calibre staff lower down the university pyramid.

Education departments sometimes found it impossible to recruit lecturers in certain specialisms. "The posts are sometimes filled on a temporary basis, perhaps hoping that the appointee will then acquire en route the qualifications appropriate for the permanent post in a university," she explained.

Although education departments could recruit some staff with PhDs, in the curriculum areas it was difficult to even find someone with distinguished performance in a Masters degree.

"The route to lectureships in education in universities tends to be mainly from existing teachers in schools, local education authorities or other public-sector institutions who have acquired a Masters degree by part-time study and possibly started or, more rarely, completed a PhD," she said. "In other areas within education applicants may come with, for example, a first degree in psychology or sociology followed by a PhD in an educationally related area, but not necessarily a teaching qualification. For example, three of the six professors of education at King's are not qualified teachers."

Research vacancies could also prove difficult to fill. "Sometimes these are filled by inappropriately qualified and experienced people simply in order to allow the research to proceed," Professor Brown admitted.

A recent survey of contract education researchers with an average of more than three years' experience revealed that 30 per cent had PhDs and 55 per cent had a Masters. A significant minority of researchers therefore had no postgraduate academic qualification.

Some people would argue that this did not matter because what the country needed was well-qualified people to train teachers, Professor Brown said, but she rejected this suggestion. "Even in relatively well-researched areas like the teaching of literacy or effective school management there are still many questions to be answered."

Instead of allowing the recruitment of poorly qualified education lecturers and researchers to be cut back it would make much more sense to increase the number of PhD-holders in education. This could be done by diverting research council funds from subjects such as mathematics to education. "This might not be easy but it might be easier than the alternative of convincing universities that they need to invest heavily in academic staff without PhDs in order to bring them rapidly to the level of other departments," she said. "If universities do receive any of the post-Dearing additional fees paid by students, one suspects that they are likely to find more pressing needs. "

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