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Education: Good report for teacher-trainers

13 June 2012

by John Howson

“It is not every person who can be fitted for the office of school-teacher”: the debate continues about teacher training SHUTTERSTOCK

“It is not every person who can be fitted for the office of school-teacher”: the debate continues about teacher training SHUTTERSTOCK

THE recent report from the Edu­ca­tion Select Committee at Westmin­ster, Great Teachers: Attracting, train­ing and retaining the best, is good news for the church universities.

As providers of teacher-preparation courses, for both gradu­ates and undergraduates, the church uni­versi­ties will have welcomed the select committee’s view that “part­ner­ship between schools and uni­versities is likely to provide the highest-quality initial teacher educa­tion, the content of which will in­volve significant school experience but include theo­retical and research elements as well”.

For much of the past quarter of a century, since Sir Keith Joseph was Secretary of State for Education, successive governments — egged on by policy think tanks of almost all poli­tical persuasions — have attacked the involvement of higher education in teacher training. They have blamed it for the apparent poor state of the profession, despite over­whelming evidence to the contrary.

That the select committee has so comprehensively backed the pres­ence of teacher preparation in higher-education settings is import­ant, especially as it follows on from an earlier endorsement of the quality of teacher training in the university sector from OFSTED.

The report did express surprise that there was no clear formula for identifying an “outstanding teacher”, and a lack of research into any poten­tial link between degree class and performance. There was also, pre­sum­ably, a lack of research into any similar link between A-level grades and teacher performance, for those recruited on to undergraduate teacher-training courses.

One of the select committee’s suggested solutions was more taster sessions for those considering teach­ing. Many tutors will know that applicants with voluntary experience in the teaching fields — whether in youth work or Sunday schools — often have a greater understanding of teaching than those with no such prior experience.

BUT the vexed question of the balance between the academic standards of would-be teachers, and the other qualities that are needed of a successful teacher is not a new debate. As long ago as 1842, the National Society discussed this question in its annual report. It concluded that:

It is not every person who can be fitted for the office of school­teacher. Good temper and good sense, gentleness coupled with firmness, a certain seriousness of character blended with cheer­­ful­ness, and even liveliness of dis­position and manner; a love of children, and that sym­pathy with their feelings which experience alone can never supply — such are the moral requirements which we seek in those to whom we commit the education of the young.

What might we add, more than a century-and-a-half later? An under­standing of new technology, multi-culturalism, and strong subject know­ledge, perhaps? It is interesting to compare the core competencies required by the Teach First pro­gramme with those that the National Society set out all those years ago.

Teach First looks for: humility, re­spect, and empathy; knowledge; leader­ship, planning, and organising; problem-solving; resilience; and self-evaluation. However we measure them, it is this need for a blend of personal and intellectual abilities which makes teaching such a de­mand­ing job.

THE church universities will no doubt be delighted that the select committee also en­dorsed the importance of continu-ing professional development for teachers, and also suggested a national sabbatical scheme.

The latter was first mooted some 40 years ago by the James Commit­tee, but there has never been suf­fi­cient money to provide for a real­istic scheme — and such sab­baticals as existed in the 1970s have grad­ually been eroded by successive cuts to pro­fessional-development bud­gets. After all, a sabbatical is never some­thing a small church primary school is going to be able to fund for its teachers without extra financial help.

Nevertheless, a renewed emphasis on career development, if taken up by the Government, is likely to be good news for schools of education within the church universities, and offers a possible route for further expansion, in times when under-grad­uate recruitment is likely to become more of challenge for the university sector as a whole.

On that point, however, the ad­vent of increased tuition fees has not yet had a devastating impact on applications to higher education. The UCAS figures for applications at April 2012 showed a fall of just 2.6 per cent in the number of 18-year-olds applying to university — less than the overall average decline of 7.7 per cent in applications.

The total has been affected by the 12.4-per-cent decline in the number of 19-year-olds applying, reflecting the relative increase in applications from 18-year-olds last year, as potential students applied early, and postponed gap years, to avoid having to pay the new higher fees.

Overall, the full effects of the loss of almost 50,000 applicants will not be known until A-level results are out, and the clearing phase of the appli­cation process has been com­pleted. Physical sciences, math­ematics, and computing seem to have fared better than some of the social sciences and languages; so clearing may have an important part to play in determining where some students choose to study.

This may still cause an anxious sum­mer for some of the church uni­versities, because students’ final choice of institution will be deter­mined by their A-level results.

Professor John Howson is the man­aging director of Education Data Sur­veys, part of the TSL Group, and a visiting Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University’s Department of Education.

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