Teaching in the dock

6th March 2009 at 00:00
School standards and curricular reforms come under attack

One of Scotland's leading education thinkers has made an outspoken attack on the "dismaying lack of subject expertise" among teachers, particularly in primary, and called for fundamental reform of training to deal with it.

Lindsay Paterson, professor of educational policy at Edinburgh University, warned that, unless teachers' subject knowledge improved, it would be difficult to deliver the new curriculum effectively or raise the attainment of Scottish pupils.

His comments amounted to a devastating critique of teaching standards in general and what he described as the child-centred "fashionable orthodoxy" underpinning A Curriculum for Excellence. He delivered them last week when he gave the keynote address to the Association of Educational Development and Improvement Professionals in Scotland (AEDIPS), at their annual conference in Stirling.

Professor Paterson went so far as to question whether those behind the curriculum reforms had "any sound understanding of what is conducive to real learning".

The "fashionable orthodoxy" ignored the need for direct teaching, he argued, and focused instead on "the kind of applied inter-disciplinary project work which is supposed to displace the need for expertise". While inter-disciplinary work had its place, it made no sense unless the disciplines had been grasped first. Pupils could not grasp these fundamentals if the "didacticism of the expert" was not available, and that depended on the teacher having the necessary disciplinary grasp, he said.

There was "a dismaying lack of subject expertise in the training of primary teachers", he said. Research pointed to an "enormous mismatch" between teachers feeling well-prepared and pupil performance which showed that they were not, he said later, under questioning from the delegates.

May Boyd, president of AEDIPS, said that while members found his critique interesting and provocative, they did not agree with him: "The perception of the audience was that education needed to be more child-centred and had to take account of what had happened in education over the past 20 to 25 years."

Professor Paterson had lauded Standard grade as the most significant educational development, and believed that Higher Still and ACfE had been retrograde steps.

Mrs Boyd argued that the world had moved on since then and schools had to develop young people with different skills.

While Professor Paterson warned of the danger of "throwing the baby (of disciplinary expertise) out with the bathwater" under curricular reforms, another speaker said the danger was more of "throwing the dirty baby out with the rancid bathwater".

David Cameron, president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, said: "What we have is neither disciplinary nor inter- disciplinary."

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