Neglect of theory is bad practice;Opinion

28th May 1999 at 01:00
Millbank, we have a problem. There are not enough teachers to go around and a rather nasty crash-landing for many a worthwhile education policy is imminent unless a solution to the crisis is found.

There is, of course, a bitter irony for this Government. Unlike its predecessors, it has noticed that there is a problem with teacher recruitment and yet the haemorrhage from the profession appears to have increased under its administration.

But there is perhaps a greater irony that lies at the heart of the Government's failure to solve the problem: when it comes to training teachers, Labour essentially mistrusts the educational process itself.

Despite the much-vaunted new emphasis on educational research, this Government appears to share the Tories' deep dislike of colleges and departments of education. There is scant reference to their role in the Green Paper where much attention is paid to alternative school-based routes into teaching.

But Labour is not alone in its scepticism about the value of teacher training. A straw-poll of many a staff-room would quite possibly come up with a similar view.

Yet those who quite justifiably contend that much of the craft of the classroom is learned at the chalk face need to recognise the danger of their argument. For Labour's highly prescriptive approach to the delivery of the curriculum is based on the same emphasis on practice at the expense of theory. As long as the manual is sufficiently clear, Labour argues, anyone can teach. In other words there is no need for teachers to be properly educated; they simply need to be trained to follow instructions. Such a perception does little to raise the profile of teaching in the eyes of would-be educators and can only, in the long run, diminish the profession as a whole.

It was Herbert Ward, the Chief Inspector of 70 years ago who - unlike the current post-holder - made a similar connection between theory and effective teaching. He wrote: "Teachers should be trained to do their work, not following blind tradition, or even immersed in the particulars of technique, but with some knowledge of the philosophical bases of teaching and of education."

The difficulty is that the needs of the classroom are so pressing we forget that schools need to be places where teachers have a sound pedagogical understanding as well.

Most student teachers want to know how to survive in the classroom, and most schools want to employ teachers who, at the end of their BEd or PGCE year, can stand in front of a class without a riot breaking out. Undoubtedly schools are the best place for this to be learned and that is why two-thirds of all courses now take place in them.

But we need to be far less anxious about theory, which is rightly encountered in the college-based sections of teacher training courses. While it may not seem instantly relevant to the nightmare that is 9C, three years down the line it may give a teacher, now grown in confidence, the perspective to stand back and alter his or her practice to cope with 8B or 4A. It will allow a literacy co-ordinator or head of department to write policies that consider the learning needs of the pupils they teach in a way that simple matters of classroom management will not.

Herbert Ward's injunction is timely. It is up to us to recognise this and argue for it. If schools and universities are truly to work in partnership, then perhaps the most valuable contribution we can make to stem the flow of teachers away from the profession is to be clear about whether we want teachers to be genuinely educated or simply to follow instructions.

And if we opt for the latter approach I suspect there won't be enough teachers to go around for a long time to come.

Bethan Marshall is a lecturer at King's College, University of London

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