Ditching BEd will not solve our problem

12th February 2010 at 00:00

I am a fan of Lindsay Paterson, who is an interesting, thoughtful and intelligent scholar and educationist.

But on a recent Newsnight Scotland discussion exploring the alleged weaknesses in Scottish primary teachers' mathematical competence, he perhaps overstated his case with respect to the intellectual infelicities of the four-year BEd course. The Dundee University study, on which Professor Paterson based his case, appeared to be corroborated by the Scottish Survey of Achievement, which found that many early-career teachers lack confidence in teaching maths and the sciences.

Professor Paterson holds that the inability to do maths is a consequence of the "unrigorous" four-year undergraduate programme. The resolution of the problem is to do away with the BEd for primary teachers and ensure that students enter the profession via the one-year PGCE route. If only matters were that simple.

The results from the Dundee experiment (let's call it that, since I am not convinced it would pass muster as research) saw little difference between those who had Standard grade maths and those who had achieved a pass at Higher, so the problem - if such exists - may not be to do with students' abilities.

Anyway, these BEd students were taught by PGCE graduates with a maths degree, so it is not self-evident that pushing all students through the extant PGCE route will do much to ameliorate the problem.

Lest it be suggested that I am over-protective of education faculties, let me say that there are undoubtedly difficulties with the historic models of teacher education. In my own faculty (as in others in Scotland), we have been busy trying to address some of these shortcomings in creative ways. But without significant change elsewhere in a system which valorises some fairly dubious summative assessment practices, the challenge is likely to endure.

The real issue lies not in the poverty of the BEd but in the creation, over many years, of an "unvirtuous" circle of a curriculum driven by assessment. As a former exam board convener and a recent consumer, I am often dismayed at the way we teach. With few exceptions in the middle to upper reaches of secondary school, we don't! We prepare students to pass the exam. Intelligent, thoughtful, committed teachers are generally left with little perceived choice but to drill their students.

Exaggeration? Consider the recent Facebook protests concerning a biology examination in England. There, students pilloried the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance for setting an exam which included questions not on the syllabus. This turned out not to be the case. It was just that the format of the questioning had changed and, because the students had been taught to memorise facts (even about values), they were panic-stricken at being invited to think.

This is no isolated incident. I lead a research project looking at the teaching of religious education to 16-year-olds across the UK. One finding has been the rise of the textbook, written expressly to deliver the exam. Within their benign covers a stark pattern emerges - lists to learn, lots of lists and, bizarrely, even lists of answers to understanding and evaluation questions.

The indebtedness of Scottish, and indeed British, education to a hegemonic alliance between textbook writers and exam boards needs to be addressed urgently.

Indeed, it is around the contradictions of assessment that I find myself coming back into a refurbished harmony with Professor Paterson. If Curriculum for Excellence aims to reinvigorate teachers, they cannot be hog-tied to a set of assessments that derive from a different era and imperative. Teacher education must and will change - but so must the way we treat learning.

Jim Conroy is dean of the education faculty at Glasgow University.

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