School versus university

19th November 2004 at 00:00
Love and knowledge of a subject are not enough, argues Richard Pring.

Teachers need the backing of sound theory too

The recent story of the retiring headmaster of Westminster school not being allowed to teach in a state school because he had no state-recognised teaching qualification got the media in a twist. It confirmed, to some vocal people, how absurd the requirement for teacher qualifications seems to be. What matters, the critics argued in force, is sound knowledge of the subject you teach and the drive and enthusiasm to pass that on to the next generation.

A couple of days later, the case of Professor David Wolfe, the evidently outstanding American teacher of physics who has been denied qualified teaching status because he lacks maths GCSE, and the reputation of university-based teacher training appears have turned to mud.

The arguments are familiar. The most important qualities for a good teacher are love and knowledge of your subject and the practical competence to manage and inspire your classes.

Formal teacher training, so the argument goes, can do neither of these. You learn your subject through your undergraduate studies; you become a competent classroom practitioner through practice - under the astute guidance of an experienced school teacher. University departments of educational studies are therefore redundant.

More than redundant, they are dangerous, the argument goes, because university departments teach "theory", which gives would-be teachers phoney educational ideas and replaces practical common sense.

Remember Keith Joseph? A prominent conservative education minister in the early 1980s, he once accused me of being responsible for all the problems in our schools. Asked to explain, he said that I had introduced teachers to the work of John Dewey, that guru of child-centred education. After that, I had the Daily Mail on my doorstep, concerned about the possible mention of that subversive philosopher, and I was cross-examined on radio by the columnist Melanie Phillips.

What the critics of university-based teacher education fail to do is attend to the evidence or listen to the teachers themselves. Courses of teacher training are as thoroughly inspected as those that happen in schools. It is a rigorous exercise which carefully scrutinises the university-based preparation and the links between that and the practical competence in schools. Where standards have not been met, there has been a ruthless pruning of courses and institutions.

And the image of students being subjected to hours of lectures on educational theory is one of the many myths that continue to fuel the critics. Far from rushing to the school-based alternative, the schools of Oxfordshire were keen to retain their partnership with the university - recognising the distinctive contribution of each to the preparation of future teachers.

We need teachers who are properly trained, so teacher training is far from redundant. Indeed, our schools and universities need to be more closely linked than ever. Schools must remain plugged into a tradition of independent and evidence-based criticism, rather than entirely subjected to the so-called "theory" emanating from government and its advisers at Number 10 and elsewhere. They also need to be able to stand tall amid the constant switches in policy initiatives based more on whim than evidence.

Richard Pring is emeritus fellow, Green College, Oxford

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