The end of BEd, beginning of broad university education

4th March 2011 at 00:00
Three principles of the Donaldson report presage radical change in training

The problem with the eloquent and incisive Donaldson report on teacher education is its modesty. It presages a revolution, yet seems to announce change that is incremental. That may be politically astute in the tangle of vested interests that is Scottish educational governance, but it threatens to impede worthwhile action.

Three principles of the report make its recommendations fundamentally incompatible with what has been done in the name of teacher education for half a century. The first is the remarkable resurrection of an old Enlightenment principle - ultimately also an ancient Greek idea - that wisdom is approached through the intellect.

The starting point of good teaching is knowing things, knowing also how all things relate to each other through the human mind, and knowing, finally, that the wonderment of even the small child is not distinct in principle from the most abstruse forms of curiosity by the most erudite scientists. That is why the first task of educating prospective primary teachers is simply to educate them - to stimulate in them the breadth of knowledge and the analytical intelligence that would allow them to understand why we want children to study things at all.

Thus Donaldson's most revolutionary proposal is to insist on an end to the primary BEd degree - not its modification, but its complete replacement with a proper university education in which students are exposed to proper degree-level study of a broad range of disciplines, so that they emerge with a sound general education.

Those students should study these things in the mainstream classes that are taken by all kinds of undergraduates. It is the civic duty of the universities to provide such work if they claim any role in teacher education - to educate prospective primary teachers with the full extent of the university's scholarly distinction, aiming to equip prospective teachers with the developed intellect through which they might comprehend what teaching is.

That first change would transform existing undergraduate practice. The second is relevant both to these students and to the postgraduate courses too. Supplementing the well-stocked mind as a preparation for teaching should be the rigorous study of the academic disciplines that enable us to understand how children learn. That has to be at a much higher intellectual level than in current teacher education. So there should be full courses in psychology and child development, difficult subjects that need careful and time-consuming work if they are to be learnt adequately.

To be able to understand children's incipient feel for language and number, student teachers must acquire an advanced understanding of how language and mathematics operate. Donaldson's comments on literacy and numeracy are about that, rather than only about students' own basic competence, important though it is.

To enable the well-educated student to transform that study into understanding the purposes of education, there should also be the proper study of philosophy and those other academic disciplines that allow us to interpret what society has expected education to do: history, sociology, politics. All these subjects, if they are to be rigorously grasped, will have to be taught to teacher-education students by people who have academic standing in these fields.

The same is true of part-time further study by established teachers: that has to be taught by university specialists, either specialists in a substantive field (such as physics) or specialists who have an understanding of children's learning that is grounded in proper research (which most of what passes for educational research is not). That, too, requires such a close engagement between schools of education and the wider university as to question whether these schools ought to exist in a separate administrative form. So the implications of this second change flowing from Donaldson, too, would be revolutionary.

The third aspect of reform is removing the development of teachers' practical wisdom out of the universities into schools. This is equally necessary to the other two and is the firmest indication that the university schools of education ought not to continue to exist in anything like their present form. A university cannot teach you how to teach children, no matter how necessary it is in equipping you to teach children.

Donaldson's idea of "hub schools" implies a scholarly engagement between universities and a limited number of selected places that are able to build upon the grounding that the university provides and can turn it into the educated capacity to inspire pupils. These hub schools must be throughout Scotland. They must also be in the independent sector, as well as in local-authority schools, to draw upon varied practices and upon the strong record of engagement with local universities that several independent schools have.

If it is correct to suggest that all this prefigures the end of the university schools of education as we have known them, then the last point is that the revolution ought not to be left to them. University departments other than education must not shirk responsibility for the well-being of the schools from where they draw most of their students. The school system outside the universities must be responsible for teachers' evolving capacity to teach. The stability of purpose needed for lasting reform will require political consensus and strong leadership nationally. This revolution depends on us all.

Lindsay Paterson is professor of educational policy at the School of Education, Edinburgh University.

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