Wanted: initiatives, not intervention

26th January 1996 at 00:00
TEACHER EDUCATION POLICY, Edited by Rob McBride, Falmer Pounds 34, Pounds 15.95. TEACHER DEVELOPMENT: A model from Science Education, By Beverley Bell and John Gilbert, Falmer Pounds 40, Pounds 13.95. NEW IDEAS FOR TEACHER EDUCATION, By Linda Haggarty, Cassell Pounds 40, Pounds 11.99

As teachers and their training come under increasing scrutiny, John Eggleston finds a few useful additions to the debate on changing policies.

One of the rare consensus points of current politics is the need to improve school teaching, to make the bad good and the good better. Yet, astonishingly, this has not led to any kind of agreed or coherent policy on teacher education.

Instead we have a mishmash of intervention, such as Gillian Shephard's knee-jerk initiative of 3Rs remedial units for teachers, the inspectorates' evaluation of training institutions using inscrutable, if not arbitrary, criteria, and a Teacher Training Agency that seems to be more concerned with cash than quality.

Teacher Education Policy pinpoints the unhappy consequences of this policy failure and presents research findings from 20 contributors to a British Education Research Association conference intended to identify ways forward.

It begins with a useful introduction by Chris Husbands delineating the largely unrelated initiatives of the past decade and goes on to report the Modes of Teacher Education Project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, which offers a sharp analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of partnership schemes.

There is much else that is good. Neville Bennet writes perceptively on how teachers learn to teach. Susan Sidgwick is illuminating on some of the problematic changes in the roles of newly qualified teachers and both Jack Whitehead and Christopher Day explore the elusive equation between in-service training and enhanced teacher performance.

Rob McBride offers some interesting perspectives on survival strategies in a university department of education and John F Schostak ruminates on the deeper meanings of teacher education.

But overall the book is a disappointment. Most of the work was presented in 1993 and researched previously and is now overtaken by events.

For example, the TTA is not even listed in the index. Though school partnerships are taken as given by most contributors, not one of the 20 chapters is written by a school-based mentor or teacher and the almost unanimous preference of the authors is to preserve the hegemony of the higher education establishment. More radical initiatives such as the role of a General Teachers' Council or a National Curriculum for Teacher Education are nowhere mentioned.

And neither the opacity of much of the writing, nor the publisher's initiative of binding the final 30 pages upside-down and back-to-front is likely to make the volume particularly accessible to the busy policy makers to whom it is addressed.

There is an old Australian joke which instructs travellers to set their watches back 25 years when entering New Zealand, and Teacher Development almost legitimates it. It reports a three-year New Zealand research project on Learning in Science where a group of science teachers developed new approaches better to respond to their students' thinking and perception.

It is based on "constructivist views" of learning which derive directly from the "social construction of reality" theses of Berger and Luckmann which were dominant in the late 1960s. A large part of the argument consists of how the group of scientists came to terms with this advanced form of subjectivism and how they packaged it into a range of scientific-looking concepts such as metacognition, critical inquiry and theory adjudication.

Yet despite the unfashionable stance, there is much of real value in the book. If we are really serious in our attempts to diminish under-achievement and provide equal opportunities, then teachers must be more sensitive to where their pupils stand. And in no subject area is this more imperative than science, where our performance is a disgrace to a modern technological society. The considerable achievements of the New Zealand teachers on this programme may well be a model for the next transmogrification of teacher education.

New Ideas for Teacher Education is a much more modest offering. Essentially, it is a guide for mathematics tutors in teacher education, and their school-based counterparts, for a one-year PGCE programme.

It sets out a week-by-week schedule of activities in schools and universities which is designed to deliver a carefully detailed and comprehensive list of course aims and student competencies. Nothing is left to chance; course schedules and timetables are provided and the extensive contextual information is clear, lucid and up-to-date. Already tried and tested and ready for immediate use, this volume is likely to out-sell the others by a large margin.

But even more worrying to the other authors is that Haggarty's book goes a long way to making the higher education tutors redundant. A well resourced and timetabled school mentor would need only a little more effort to take on virtually the whole programme that the book sets out.

Overall, despite a good deal of erudition, the three volumes are unlikely to fill the vacuum in teacher education policy or the drift in practice which they have used to justify much of their writing. Even if the ministers and mandarins could be persuaded to read them, their impact on policy would at best be imperceptible. A more hopeful route might be to explore how the initiative of the National Commission on Education could be taken forward by a General Teachers' Council. Sadly none of the books display even such modest vision.

John Eggleston is Visiting Research Professor in the Faculty of Education, University of Central England.

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