Investigate proof of the practice

27th September 1996 at 01:00
The Secretary of State has asked Sir Ron Dearing, that great reconciler of the irreconcilable and smoother down of ruffled feathers, to sort out higher education. Sadly, it is unlikely that his committee will have time to focus on the role of universities in educating teachers or the developing the education service more generally.

In these consumerist days, we witness the consigning of universities to the role of "provider", competing with alternative providers of initial and continuing teacher training. Likewise, the research agenda is increasingly driven by particular interests which, together, lead to the production of an approved, but partial, list of research topics. Large numbers of unread articles in esoteric journals are generated, while opportunities for measured reflection and collaboration are much reduced.

However, the bread and butter of most university education departments is teacher training and so, within such departments, there is an understandable desire to preserve the status quo. But this shouldn't be allowed to stand in the way of confronting larger questions. One doesn't have to agree with David Hargreaves's idealised analogue of a typical GP (who, we are told, regularly scours The Lancet for the latest medical research) to acknowledge that we could learn from other professions which have a variety of relationships with universities. Lawyers, architects, social workers and engineers have all developed their own ways of working with universities. The non-existence of a general teachers' council as a major representational and mediating body also stands out when such comparisons are made.

At the most basic level, it seems inconceivable that as we approach the third millennium there are rumours of a government-backed TTA scheme to introduce a new non-graduate route into teaching (The Observer, September 22). Few other occupations would be conceived of in such a way when it is so evident that high-order skills and sheer brainpower are increasingly needed in all parts of a "knowledge society". The precise ways in which a well-educated, all-graduate profession is produced is a separate question. Other professions demonstrates a diverse range of practices. The role of universities in this is not, necessarily, as an all-through training organisation but issues of curriculum development, accreditation and quality assurance do arise.

Likewise, if a university is worth anything at all, it must be because of its scholarship and research functions. A deep and unflinching commitment to truth and dispassionate scrutiny are necessary parts of such work and these characteristics flourish on the back of hard-won technical skills and knowledge. Academic apprenticeship and mentoring need to feature in the forging of such competence. The same is true of research and scholarship in the fields of law, medicine, architecture and engineering. None of this can be simply assumed to exist, or automatically accorded to universities. It has to be tested and hard won. However, this represents a different approach from that which is indicated in some current practice and trends. Three examples of my concern can be briefly described.

The so-called national curriculum for initial teacher training and, de facto, for "expert teachers" and headteachers has emerged rapidly. This may well be acclaimed by those who thrill to the slap of firm government, but it signifies an intention to end the university's role in mediating and developing, with schools and other, the content and form of professional development. Whether universities wish to carry out such a franchised role in relation to central government quangos will, no doubt, be the subject of much debate.

Then there is the desire of the TTA to get its hands on the Pounds 27 million of educational research funding, currently held by the Higher Education Funding Council. The TTA's dynamic approach to cleaning up human imperfections and prescribing most things that move within its growing domain is awesome, not least to those of us who are not ashamed of coming from a management culture.

However, the agency's awarding of Pounds 60,000 to schools and teachers for small research projects isn't entirely encouraging. Michael Bassey has written well and sensibly about this (TES, September 13). I would want to emphasise the proper contribution of universities as providers of sound methodological advice to teachers so that they neither seek to re-invent wheels or end up wasting public money and their own time. Over the past year, I have done my best to rein in and help focus similar school-based research and development projects in several Cheshire primary schools. The teachers' enthusiasm and commitment were nearly destroyed because, initially, their projects hadn't been sufficiently well-designed and their chosen methodologies were out of kilter with their purposes.

Government and its various agency arms accuse university education departments (or "training colleges", as the media endlessly repeats) of being monopolistic, dilettante and worse; chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead said "local eccentricities" needed to be erased from initial teacher training. In other professions there is a growing commitment to evidence-based practice. Where is the education service's equivalent forum for such scrutiny?

Should we take note of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's observation that in some of its member states "important sectors of education are not submitted to scientific evaluation."?

They can't have been thinking about the UK? After all, systems of governance and decision-making are as worthy of examination as are pedagogic and curricular issues.

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