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Stop this roller-coaster ride for training

Harry Judge looks at teacher training from British, French and American perspectives. Teachers and the public do not have long to decide whether they wish the teaching profession to preserve any real connection with the universities. The last half-century has been a roller-coaster for teacher education. At the end of the Second World War, primary school teachers (and many of the teachers for the new secondary modern schools) were prepared for their work through two-year courses in training colleges of modest status.

Grammar school teachers did not by law need to be trained, but usually attended university education departments for one year. In the 1960s, the introduction of comprehensive schools meant that all secondary teachers would need new kinds of training, while primary teachers became vocal in claiming graduate status.

These changes in the educational system, together with a climate of rising expectations for schools and the teachers in them, brought welcome improvements of quality and quantity in the preparation offered to teachers. The training colleges were rebaptised as colleges of education, and began to move closer to the mainstream of higher education. Courses were lengthened from two to three years, and for the better-qualified students a new degree (the BEd) was on offer.

Within a few years, training for all secondary teachers became compulsory. Meanwhile, in 1972, the James Committee warned that teacher education was in danger of becoming too academic and of losing its roots in professionalism and the improvement of practice in schools. Fundamental restructuring was urgently required. Some critics oversimplified by warning (always a popular thing to do then) that the English system was in danger of becoming too American.

The first quarter-century after 1945 was largely one of advance and optimism for teacher education, whereas the following 25 years are marked by apparently irreversible decline. The Seventies were a decade of contraction, institutional mergers and instability. Colleges were closed or lost their distinctive identity in larger institutions, and the university departments of education no longer enjoyed a protected market in providing higher degrees for those who wanted to become college lecturers (in educational philosophy or sociology, for example).

Teacher education became defensive and reluctant to engage in internally-generated reform. The confidence gap widened between it and the public, between it and the rest of higher education, between it and practising teachers.

Teacher education as an activity within higher education was therefore dangerously ill-prepared to resist the onslaughts of the Eighties. Its leaders meekly accepted a tightening of government controls as the emphasis was forcibly shifted from the academic study of education to the practical training of teachers in schools.

A short-lived quango (the Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education) successfully imposed on universities and polytechnics a set of practices and values which reflected a deep distrust of all that was implied by the embedding of teacher training within higher education. Vice-chancellors and others squeaked a little, but nothing could be done to resist the determination of Government to wrench the funding of teacher education away from higher education and its funding councils, and to hand over the cash to a new 1994 agency. Reviewing all these changes, two American scholars contributing to a new comparative study co-written by myself conclude that teacher education in Britain is now without a home. A roller-coaster indeed.

Americans looking at the British system inevitably see things hidden from the native observer, and this book seeks to build upon this kind of insight. The American scholars look at England, the English at France, and the French at America.

The American contributors to the three-country study believe, with good reason, that the leaders of teacher education in Britain under-estimated the strength of the case against them, over-estimated the dependability of old establishment habits of civility between universities and Government, and squandered key opportunities to set their own house in order. In a similar way, the American system of teacher education is thrown into fresh perspective by the sympathetic scrutiny of a French university professor. On the surface, nothing could be more sharply contrasted than the disintegrating connection between universities and teacher education in this country and the full integration of education in the lives of most American universities. But appearances are nearly always deceptive. A French interpretation of the American experience does indeed celebrate the scale and diversity of higher education there, is respectful of its dedication to the causes of access and equity, honours the international reputation of its great Graduate Schools of Education. But it also underscores the fundamentally vulnerable place of Schools of Education within universities, the popularity of alternatives to them, and the level of public criticism of them. And with reluctance the French academic, sheltering behind formidable American authorities, castigates at one and the same time the subordination of the priorities of teacher training to those of (mostly trivial) research, and the elevation of Heart over Head: the abandonment, that is to say, of those academic standards represented for the French by the perennial rigours of the agregation and (they hope still) of the bac. An apologist for current British policies might well respond: "I told you so!" But an inspection of the French example itself, this time by myself, must modify any such response. Once again, the contrast with what is now happening in Britain is so stark as to be hardly credible. Are the French and the English inhabiting the same universe? In 1991, by the kind of government diktat which the English know well but from which the Americans are exempt, the French system of teacher education was turned upside down.

At the same time, so was the British, but in France a government acted in order to bring the whole exercise for the first time into newly-created university institutes. The move was furiously contested, above all by intellectuals for whom the new institutes were all of a piece with Disneyland and Hollywood and McDonald's: French culture was being conspiratorially infected with American diseases.

But the new institutes have been phenomenally successful in attracting candidates of the highest quality and, in spite of the noisy hustings rhetoric, were left in place after the victory of the Right in the elections of 1993.

Since then, however, the academic content of teacher preparation in the universities has been toughened, and the institutes forbidden to develop as research establishments or to concede any major influence to the social sciences.

Of these three countries only Britain is attempting to banish the training of teachers from the university. Although its Government may have been given good reasons for so doing, it is certain that, if this country is to develop a teaching profession of the quality it obviously requires, such a profession needs and deserves a strong university connection. Comparative studies further suggest that such a connection need not be established on the American model, which the British devoutly imitated in the Sixties and the French are now emphatically rejecting.

Across the Channel lies an example of a society which insists that the university should act as guarantor of the quality of the academic preparation and subject-based training of its teachers, primary as well as secondary, while much of the work of professional preparation is undertaken by field-based practitioners - also firmly under the aegis of university institutes. This must be an example to take seriously, if the ailing baby of the university connection is not to be thrown out with the dirty bathwater of the Sixties and Seventies.

The University and The Teachers: France, The United States, England by Harry Judge, Michel Lemosse, Lynn Paine and Michael Sedlak is published on December 12 by Triangle Books, Wallingford, OX10 0YG. ISBN 1 873927 08 8.

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