Spare us from the hyp­ocrites who preach about how to teach

TES (Times Education Supplement) - - EDITORIAL -

Those of your stu­dents who are off to an elite univer­sity next month – clutch­ing a set of A-level re­sults of which they (and you) should be rightly proud – could be in for some­thing of a shock once they’ve re­cov­ered from fresh­ers’ week. Emerg­ing from 14 years in the bo­som what is, in large part, an ex­cel­lent schools sys­tem, they may be be­mused: it’s likely their new aca­demic home won’t be ter­ri­bly in­ter­ested in their ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ence.

Uni­ver­si­ties may dish out qual­i­fi­ca­tions, or­gan­ise thou­sands of lec­tures and, in­deed, now have a re­port­ing line into the Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion, but for many years, teach­ing has played sec­ond fid­dle to the pu­rity of aca­demic re­search.

There have re­cently been sev­eral ef­forts to change this, not least of all be­cause of pres­sures from stu­dents, who, per­haps not un­rea­son­ably, ex­pect a de­cent amount of bang for their 27,000 bucks.

Most re­cently, this has in­cluded the pub­li­ca­tion of the Teach­ing Ex­cel­lence Frame­work, which ranked all Eng­land’s uni­ver­si­ties as Gold, Sil­ver or Bronze ac­cord­ing to the qual­ity of teach­ing. Of the 134 to have gone through the process, 83 per cent picked up Sil­ver or Gold and 17 per cent were la­belled Bronze, in­clud­ing some of our sup­posed world-lead­ers – the highly selec­tive Lon­don School of Eco­nomics and the Univer­sity of Liver­pool, to name but two.

As an aside, it’s worth not­ing that there are no spe­cial mea­sures for uni­ver­si­ties; Bronze is “sat­is­fac­tory” – or “re­quires im­prove­ment” as we like to call it in the schools sec­tor th­ese days. No­body say Old Boys Club.

As a sec­ond aside, it’s also worth point­ing out that of the 21,000 schools in­spected by Of­sted, nearly 19,000 are cur­rently judged “good” or “out­stand­ing” for teach­ing and learn­ing.

Frankly, I’m not so sure uni­ver­si­ties should be all about teach­ing any­way. Mar­ket-led re­forms have un­der­stand­ably driven th­ese de­mands, but surely be­ing a univer­sity stu­dent should, mostly, be about a voy­age of self-dis­cov­ery (in­tel­lec­tu­ally, and other wise). There is, af­ter all, noth­ing so char­ac­ter-form­ing as sleep­ing through a term of lec­tures on the po­lit­i­cal his­tory of mod­ern Ja­pan.

But that’s be­side the point. What the

TEF data shows, com­bined with em­pir­i­cal ev­i­dence (a thor­oughly sci­en­tific…ish straw poll in the Tes news­room), is that many English uni­ver­si­ties – in­clud­ing some that are sup­pos­edly world-class – are, at best, only pass­ingly in­ter­ested in teach­ing and learn­ing.

All of which al­lows me to neatly segue on to the peren­nial idea that uni­ver­si­ties are in a good po­si­tion to tell teach­ers how to run schools.

This should be a pol­icy joke – and yet it has had more rein­ven­tions than Madonna: most re­cently, it fea­tured along­side the pro­pos­als for more gram­mar schools in the gov­ern­ment’s pre-elec­tion ed­u­ca­tion Green Pa­per. And while the 11-plus plans died a death in the af­ter­math of the gen­eral elec­tion, ru­mours em­a­nat­ing from Down­ing Street sug­gest that the idea of HE in­sti­tu­tions be­ing forced to spon­sor acad­e­mies is still on the ta­ble.

This, de­spite the fact that – TEF or no

TEF – top uni­ver­si­ties’ chang­ing their in­dif­fer­ent at­ti­tude to­wards teach­ing is about as likely as Sir Michael Wil­shaw sud­denly de­cid­ing that learn­ing styles are a gift to dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion.

To ram home the point, let’s turn this bonkers po­lit­i­cal idea on its head. Let’s imag­ine if the Univer­sity of Dream­ing Spires was told by the ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary that school­teach­ers were best placed to run its £100m new In­sti­tute for the Study of Navel-gaz­ing. The up­roar would be deaf­en­ing – and rightly so. So how about this? How about schools are left to do what they do best – teach­ing – and uni­ver­si­ties are left to do what they do best – re­search. And if a few dons de­cide to brush up on their ped­a­gogy, that would prob­a­bly be no bad thing – es­pe­cially if they want to keep charg­ing nine grand a year.

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