Editorial

25th February 2011 at 00:00
Refugees from academe let loose in the classroom? Surely things aren't that bad?

Universities are having a torrid time. Budgets are squeezed, students are enraged and vice-chancellors flounder. Higher education today is as dependable as a Belgian coalition or a Katy Price marriage. Step forward Dr Anthony Seldon. Like a latter-day Carpathia, the independent school head has launched a career lifeboat for academics stranded on the HE Titanic by calling on them to jump ship and become teachers (page 8). Some academics will be tempted. Wellington College offers excellent facilities, a convivial environment, decent pay and the Holy Grail for all who toil in academe - a parking space. The requirement to teach 20 hours a week will be a shock to those used to thinking a third of that is an imposition, but needs must when Vince Cable drives.

Yet attractive though Dr Seldon's offer is, it would be surprising if his magnanimity were widely copied. For the past 50 years British universities have rewarded research and dissed teaching. Pockets of excellent teachers remain, much like wild Siberian tiger remain. But going to universities for fresh supplies of teaching talent is rather like mounting an expedition to Asda for meat that tastes of something. It doesn't exist in enormous quantities. To be brutal, in such mean times what do these economic migrants have to contribute? Schools tempted to open their doors would be well advised to operate a points system.

First, do these refugees have the necessary language qualifications? Most academics do not speak human. Obsessed with their own research, addicted to impenetrable jargon, many find their own species baffling. They prefer to observe, analyse and dissect it. They don't want to talk to it. Can you picture them giving an assembly?

Second, will they fit in culturally? The tragic yet-to-be-broadcast spectacle of Dr David Starkey trying to interest Jamie's Dream School teenagers in the Anglo-Saxon Hoard is especially painful. Obviously the pupils misheard and were disappointed, but it highlights the gulf between people who think the world is dying to listen to their every word and everyone else. Could you employ staff whose idea of CPD was having lunch with their publisher?

Finally, could academics handle the really skilled jobs - relations with parents? For academics, parents are mysterious creatures only glimpsed at open days and graduation ceremonies. They impinge as often as the aurora borealis does over Ipswich. The realisation that parents exist in more than a mythical sense and have expectations of Nelsonian proportions could break the tenuous grasp that most academics have on reality. Do you want that on your conscience?

God bless Dr Seldon. He deserves a statue. And an inscription: "Give me your tired, your poor, your muddled has-beens ... the wretched refuse of your teeming campus ...". But really, charity can go too far. gerard.kelly@tsleducation.com.

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