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Serious stuff of dons' duel

Cambridge is split over a proposed new degree in education studies, reports Biddy Passmore.

Is education a serious academic subject? Discuss.

The dons of Cambridge University will be voting on that very matter next week when they take part in a postal ballot to decide whether the university should introduce a BA degree in education studies.

This would not be a teacher-training qualification. It would contain no classroom training but would stick to the theoretical high ground of the psychology, philosophy, sociology and history of education. Students would also take a main teaching subject, such as English with drama, so they could go on to postgraduate teacher training if they wished.

Education studies would thus join traditional subjects like history and the classics as well as relative upstarts such as social and political sciences among the select band of subjects candidates can study for the tripos, Cambridge's two-part degree examination. The proposal has produced a spirited debate, with papers for and against circulating in senior common rooms.

One of the moving spirits behind the plan, which has been put forward by the university's faculty of education, is Kate Pretty, the respected principal of Homerton College. If the new course goes ahead, nearly all of the students would be at Homerton.

Dr Pretty says the course would suit bright students who are interested in the subject of education for its own sake without necessarily wanting to teach. Homerton has already received expressions of interest from some 40 or 50 applicants for the new course. It has space for new students - some 20 places would be offered this autumn, rising to 60 - because its number of BEd students has been cut in line with the declining number of primary pupils.

This gives rise to mutterings from sceptics that the college would be using the proposed degree to solve the problems of empty beds and lecturers left idle by the increase in school-based training.

As in all good academic battles, figures are being disputed - or, in this case, letters. Dr Frank King, fellow of Churchill College, university lecturer in computer science and arch-opponent of the education studies tripos, predicts an influx of candidates with lowly B, C and D grades at A-level. This would topple Cambridge from its academic pinnacle, based on admitting the vast majority with straight As.

But Dr Pretty says this is deliberate misinformation. Applicants admitted for the BEd degree are likely to have grades between BBC and BCD but those admitted for the new BA would be expected to gain AAB or better. And what would graduates in education studies do? Some, of course, would go on to postgraduate teacher training. Others, according to the faculty of education, might follow "a non-teaching career in the field of education, for example in educational administration, in the civil service, in publishing or the media, or in the academic study of education".

Such a prospect makes Dr King groan. "They'll become education bureaucrats and inflict their crank theories on the local authorities," he told The TES. "The whole cycle will begin again."

He believes there is a role for the study of education at postgraduate level but not undergraduate level.

Such arguments leave Dr Pretty unimpressed. "Education is a social science like all the other social sciences in the university," she says. "These arguments have all been levied at English and law in their time. It's the classic conservative response to the idea that one might introduce a new subject."

It is hard to predict which way the ballot of the 3,000-plus senior members of the university will go. On the one side, broadly speaking, are the hard sciences, law and traditionalists in every subject; on the other, the social scientists, the faculty of education and the numerous supporters of Dr Pretty.

Many in the university's senior common rooms are deeply suspicious of the whole notion of education as an academic subject. John Hopkins, for instance, fellow of Downing College and university lecturer in law, quoted with approval an anecdote about Sir Claude Elliott, a former headmaster of Eton.

"What," Sir Claude asked an applicant for a teaching post, "do you know about the theory of education?" The applicant confessed he knew nothing. "Oh, that's all right then," said the headmaster - and gave him the job.

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