Schools set to lecture academics in how to teach

Survey shows students prefer sixth-form teaching to university

Irena Barker

Universities are to be given considerable influence over school education with the announcement last week that they will play a key role in redesigning A levels.

But a new project being launched by an elite group of private schools suggests that when it comes to teaching quality, it is the universities that should be taking lessons.

After research showed that undergraduates thought they received better teaching while at school, the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) plans to send top-flight independent school teachers into universities to advise them on how to up their game.

Universities need to improve teaching techniques and assessment and provide more constructive feedback, according to the HMC, whose members include Eton College and Harrow.

HMC research shows that half of final-year undergraduates were more satisfied with the teaching they received during sixth form than the teaching they experienced at university.

The organisation is also concerned that lecturers, often recruited from abroad on the strength of their academic work, can lack knowledge about A levels and the educational context their students come from.

William Richardson, general secretary of the HMC, said that the advent of #163;9,000 tuition fees means that universities are under increasing pressure to provide good undergraduate teaching. "They have to satisfy students and their mothers, who go to the open days much more than they used to," he said.

Dr Richardson has written to 10 Russell Group and 1994 Group universities this month, inviting them to get involved in regional events where school teachers will be able to pass on their knowledge to lecturers of first-year undergraduates.

"The quality of undergraduate teaching has become much more important and we are saying that we can help, we have something to contribute," said Dr Richardson, former head of the School of Education at the University of Exeter.

"We have teachers with PhDs teaching in schools. The aim is that students feel that teaching from age 17 to 21 is equally good."

So far, four universities have agreed to participate, although it is hoped that up to 15 universities will take part in the longer term. Dozens of schools are expected to provide teachers to help train the academics.

The initiative comes just weeks after research by exam group Cambridge Assessment showed that six out of 10 academics staged catch-up lessons for first-years because students were not being prepared for higher education at school.

Dr Richardson said that, until now, there has been "virtually no dialogue at all" between the school and university sectors. "The key thing is to get a good professional discussion going," he said. He insisted that it is important that it is not just an independent sector issue and said that private school teachers would pair up with those from the state sector to take part.

In an article for TES last year, HMC chairman Kenneth Durham, headmaster at University College School in Hampstead, said that the lack of attention given to teaching quality at British universities was "astonishing". The claim that university was a culture shock after spoonfeeding at school "won't wash" because students "know when they are learning well", he said.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, which speaks for the higher education sector, said that it was "nonsensical" to compare school and university teaching, as they are "entirely different things".

The "overwhelming majority" of universities already run accredited teaching development programmes for new teaching staff, she said, pointing to the 83 per cent student satisfaction rates in the last year's National Student Survey. But she added: "Universities are committed to high teaching standards, so dialogue between schools and universities to share best practice would not be a bad thing. Increasingly, and quite rightly, students are demanding more from their university courses."

One English teacher and head of staff training at an Oxfordshire state school, who did not want to be named, said: "I have experience at both ends of the spectrum as I have recently been studying for an MA at a Russell Group university and the teaching amounted to 16 hours of PowerPoint.

"As for school teachers showing lecturers how to teach - I think it would work only if there was long-term mentoring not just sporadic training events."

And the survey said

52% of all final-year undergraduates thought teaching was better in sixth form than at university.

62% of final-year undergraduates from independent schools thought teaching was better in sixth form than at university.

87% of final-year undergraduates from independent schools felt that their school teaching prepared them well for university.

69% of final-year undergraduates from state schools felt that their school teaching prepared them well for university.

Source: HMCPopulus, October 2011. Sample of 500 students from the independent sector and 500 from the state sector.

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Irena Barker

Irena Barker is a freelance journalist.

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