Byline: GRAHAM TURNER
`SUPPOSING we trained our doctors as we train our teachers,' declared Dr Eric Anderson, formerly a highly successful headmaster of Eton and now Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford. `Most of us would be dead.'
The whole culture and philosophy of our teacher training institutions, he went on, was based on the failed and discredited ideas of the Sixties. Most were so dominated by people with Left-wing views that anyone who thought differently was bound to be an outsider. And their courses were packed with useless information and out-of-date techniques based on theory rather than practice.
`It would be worth asking,' said Anderson, `how many really excellent teachers decide to spend the second half of their working lives in training colleges. The answer, I suspect, is very few indeed. Well, do we really want to put the shock-troops of the next teaching generation into the hands of people who were not very good teachers themselves - and who pump out ideas and theories which experience shows don't work?'
At Eton, half the masters he had hired had been trained in such places and half hadn't. The half who hadn't had proved to be by far the better teachers.
Anderson's judgment may sound swingeing, not to say apocalyptic, but he reflects a very deep and widespread dissatisfaction with our 96 teacher training institutions. Every Tory education secretary I have spoken to bemoans the fact that they did not begin the process of reform with a root-and-branch attack on the way our teachers are trained.
Far too many, they say, emerge from colleges and universities stuffed with half-baked, politically correct and utterly impractical theories, but very little notion of how to teach the basics of reading, writing and number.
Nor is it only the Tories who are exasperated. David Blunkett, the shadow education spokesman, is singing from virtually the same song-sheet. `When I came into this job 18 months ago,' he told me, `I was amazed to discover how little time was spent during a typical teacher training course in learning how to transmit basic reading, writing and number skills. Often, it was only a few hours.'
The Daily Mail recently carried a withering attack by a young woman called Jane Dewar on the training course she had just completed at a Midlands university. She said, among other things, that she and the other students had been given virtually no advice on practical issues, such as how to keep good discipline in class.
`I felt she got the situation quite right,' volunteered Blunkett without my ever mentioning the article. `It's perfectly clear that, in future, we're going to have to lay down very strict guidelines for the inspection of teacher training colleges.
`These people need to realise that the notion of teachers as, first and foremost, an emotional prop and social worker is no longer acceptable. They are, first and foremost, conveyors of knowledge. If the people in these colleges are not doing their jobs, they have to go. Nobody is forcing them to work there.'
The same growls of complaint are to be heard the length of Whitehall and in all its agencies. Senior civil servants reel off lists of universities and colleges where, they say, the training is downright second-rate. The new Teacher Training Agency berates Ofsted inspectors for reports on colleges which, in its view, are nothing like tough enough.
Nor is that surprising, given that at least a third of Chris Woodhead's inspectors are unreconstructed refugees from the soggy-minded past.
The entire Whitehall machine, in fact, is thoroughly fed up with the hostility and foot-dragging with which the heads of many teacher training institutions have greeted their attempts at reform. They opposed the setting up of the TTA and bitterly resent the fact that, in future, they will get government finance only if their courses are judged to be up to scratch - and if the students they turn out perform well in schools.
The foot-dragging is only too obvious when talking to someone like Ian Kane, head of the education school at Manchester's Metropolitan University and chair of the University Council for the Education of Teachers. Kane does not believe anything has improved in schools as a result of the reforms of the past ten years.
All the Government had been trying to do, he told me, was make the education system more responsive to market forces. That simply wasn't appropriate, because the market was based on competition, and competition was about winners and losers.
But, I said, wasn't the real world outside schools increasingly about winners and losers? `I suppose it is,' retorted Kane, `but what's so good about the real world? It's not schools who're involved in tax evasion, tax fraud and exporting arms to wherever!'
To their credit, the less reactionary members of the education establishment regard this sort of stuff as straight from cloud-cuckoo-land.
`What planet is that guy living on?' asked David Hargreaves, Professor of Education at Cambridge, while David Hopkins, Professor-designate at Nottingham, described Kane's stance as `the unreconstructed Leftist view which has got us into our present problems in the first place. It's totally untenable.'
Is this chorus of criticism unfair? Are our teacher training institutions really the heart of educational darkness which their detractors allege?
Before actually visiting some of them, I talked to three teachers who have recently emerged from two of our most prestigious training institutions, one in London, the other in the West Country.
Two are graduates who did a one-year course in London. The third took a four-year course with the aim of becoming a primary teacher. All are in their 20s or early 30s. They asked me to withhold their names, for fear it might prejudice their chances of getting jobs in other schools. So we shall call them Julia, Susan and Debbie.
`On my course,' said Julia, who trained in London, `we simply were not given a thorough grounding in how to teach either reading or maths. They told us about the different methods of teaching children to read - phonics, `real books' and `look and say' - but they didn't get into the nitty-gritty of how to do any of them.'
It was exactly the same on her course, agreed Debbie, who had trained in the West Country. The lecturers had skimmed over the different approaches and talked about being able to deploy `a range of strategies', but that was all.
All three women had been left with the clear impression that using phonics - considered by the top Ofsted inspectors as the best way of teaching children the fundamentals of reading - would be bad practice. All their tutors had been very keen on `real books' - `Which seems to mean,' said Susan, `that you hope children will learn how to read by osmosis' - and totally against structured whole-class teaching.
`It's now perfectly clear to me,' she added, `why so many children leave primary school still unable to read properly, They simply haven't been taught how.'
Another thing on which they'd spent almost no time, Julia went on, was management and control of the classroom, without which you couldn't teach a thing. They'd had only one lecture where they'd been shown a video and asked what they would do if a child refused to do what he or she had been told.
There was nothing about the questions on her mind, such as how to achieve a low sound level in class and how to deal with disruption. What she'd been looking for was `20 essential points for classroom control'. The fact that they didn't get anything like that simply wasn't fair on people like themselves going out to teach in tough schools.
Part of the trouble, said Susan, was that the people training teachers tended to be `the wacky Seventies progressive types', so there was a political aspect to a lot of it. But how did she know they were Left-wing?
`They tell you they are,' she retorted, `and insist that you've got to take a view as well.'
She recalled a heated debate with her tutor, who insisted that you should never correct children's spoken English because it meant you were saying `I don't like you, I don't value you'. `So I told him that, when I'd been working in commerce and helping to interview people for jobs, they sometimes didn't get them because of the way they spoke. Even that wasn't good enough for him, though I noticed that his own children spoke properly!'
The lecturers' Leftishness came through in all kinds of ways, said Julia . She realised that you couldn't do very much on a year's course, but they'd spent far too much time in her view on what were called `issues in education', which turned out to be racism, gender and the role of the teacher as social worker. There had been a lot of political correctness of that kind. A whole day on gender! She'd much rather have had a day learning how to teach phonics.
`Our lecturers also showed their bias,' said Susan, `in that they were totally against competition between children. They told us it would damage their self-esteem and make them drop out of the learning process. There was a terrific lot about how to handle Special Needs kids but nothing whatever about the need to stretch able children.
` `Sometimes you'll be a doctor,' one of the lecturers told us, `sometimes a probation officer, sometimes a social worker' - but they never told us when you ought to stop being a social worker and become just a teacher!'
In neither institution, said the three, had there been any enthusiasm for the whole-class teaching which Woodhead and his senior inspectors believe should be a major element in classroom work. `The implication,' said Debbie, `was that you'd always be working with children divided into groups, though there wasn't a single lecture on how to handle that.
`They said we could use whole-class teaching whenever it was appropriate, but the basic idea was that we should `get off the mat' as soon as possible, because otherwise we might bore the children.'
Jane Dewar had exactly the same experience at her Midlands university.
`You were taught that whole-class teaching is old-fashioned,' she said, `that the teacher spouting off is boring and does not connect with children.
`You're told that the best thing to do is give the kids a brief introduction, put them into small groups and allocate each a job to keep them, as the jargon goes, `on task'. They even advise you not to hover too much around these little groups, because they say children need to be responsible for their own learning. You sometimes wonder what you're being paid for.
`It doesn't seem to occur to these lecturers that children in small groups may be talking about anything but the subject in hand. There's just no way that you can keep track of all that's going on. Of course, when you move over to a particular group, they jump back `on task' in a hurry, but how much they've been talking about what went on last night is unquantifiable.
`The course I took was skewed 100 per cent to focusing on less able children. If you were to get a really gifted child, the implication was that it was almost a problem. And you weren't supposed to think of mere results as the be-all and end-all. The main thing, according to the people who taught us, was that children should have what they called `a good educational experience'. The whole place was steeped in right on-ness.'
My own visits to teacher training institutions were equally revealing.
Government reforms have changed some things quite considerably. Student teachers now spend much more of their time in the schools, and far less being lectured on subjects like the philosophy, psychology and sociology of education. The Roehampton Institute reckons that the proportion of students' time spent on these things has gone down from 40 pc to 8 pc.
A great deal, however, has stayed the same, not least the prevailing orthodoxy about teaching methods, which has the force of totalitarian dogma.
Every student teacher I spoke to believed that group work was becoming more important and that `chalk and talk' was terribly demotivating for the pupils - exactly the opposite of what I had found in a number of schools I visited, where children apparently liked to be taught.
At St Mary's, Strawberry Hill, where half the students are Catholic, I was told by the assistant principal, David Smith, that he'd decided not to ask staff to allow me to observe the classes where they were training student teachers, because they might feel I wouldn't understand what they were doing. What a contrast, I thought, to the time when I was interviewing surgeons, all of whom, without exception, could not wait to get me into their operating theatres to watch them at work.
Then I was introduced to half a dozen charming young student teachers.
Like everyone else I met in training colleges, they were very keen on both mixed-ability teaching and `collaborative learning' in mixed groups. Indeed, they were worried that, when children moved on to secondary school, they were likely to be allocated sets on the basis of ability.
`That,' said a young man called Lindsay, `means that the brighter ones will no longer know anyone at the lower end of the ability range. It's so unnatural.' Did he, I wondered, imagine that children in such schools were also put in the same set for games and lunch break, or even required to travel to school on separate buses?
Just as they seemed to spot the demon of juvenile social disharmony behind every classroom door where ability was not perfectly mixed, so they had come to see insidious political motives behind the Government's education reforms. The National Curriculum, declared Lindsay, had been created in the minds of people who sent their children to private schools (Mr Blunkett, who supports the idea, certainly has not done that).
As for the SATs tests at seven and 11, added one of the others, their real purpose was to test teachers, not pupils. The welfare of children was obviously no longer the most important thing, because having to take SATs not only demotivated children but also increased their anxiety into the bargain.
What was more, said Gillaine, SATs were concerned only with attainment rather than `overall progress', which was not the same thing. At the end of the day, you were a person, not just a grade. What, her sister Elaine wanted to know, did a child who got a D feel like? Their personal values, like helping others in class, were bound to suffer in the SATs process.
How, I wondered, would these tender little plants of whom they were speaking ever be able to face up to the hard knocks and icy winds of life beyond school? Sentimentality, I felt like saying, was not the same as love.
When I met five members of the teaching staff, the atmosphere was distinctly frosty from the outset, as David Smith had warned me it might be.
I'd enjoyed talking to their students, I said to break the ice. Why was that, asked one of the five suspiciously? Well, they were honest, I replied.
And what did that mean? he wanted to know, as if the students might have blown some mysterious gaff.
I asked about training students to teach children how to read and mentioned that, in places like Islington, 81 pc were leaving primary school with reading ages below their chronological age.
But what tests had been used for the survey, the teacher trainers wanted to know? And at what age had the test been done, because children made quite a marked leap in their reading ability at certain times? Again, for what purpose had the tests been carried out? They always encouraged their students to question where figures like that came from. I also ought to remember, they added, that reading was one of the most complex things any human being ever did.
All in all, they did not seem wildly enthusiastic about even acknowledging that there was a real problem and that inadequate teaching might have had a part in it. Not wishing to be political, I did not add that the figures came from a survey commissioned by as trendy a Labour-controlled council as you would meet in a long day's march.
The talk moved to `collaborative learning', that holy of holies in the progressive education canon. What, I inquired, was so marvellous about it?
It was, the five explained, `learning in a social context'. We were not just individuals. We needed one another. It was also valuable educationally, because a child could get through to another child, where a teacher could not. Collaborative learning, they added, enhanced children's skills in both listening to and talking to each other.
`Well,' I remarked, pensively rather than patronisingly, `there might be something in what you say.' That did it. How dared I say something like that, snapped one of the ladies, to people like themselves who had been working in the field for 20 years? It was simply arrogant. I would never dream of questioning a doctor in that way.
I was also, she told me, denying progress. Her uncle had had his tonsils taken out on a kitchen table when he was quite an old man, a thing her own parents would never have allowed to happen to her. Hers had been taken out when she was only 19.
She'd been brought up on a farm, she went on, but had then been to a comprehensive school and, as a result, had come quite a long way. By this time, I sensed that I had struck a raw nerve. Teacher trainers clearly do not like their dogmas to be questioned. If you've believed in something for 20 years, it must apparently be right.
What nobody has yet explained to me is that, though you see precious little `collaborative learning' in Japan, Singapore or, for that matter, Germany, they nonetheless seem to co-operate rather effectively in later life.
I had an equally abrasive encounter at the former Bedford College, now part of De Montfort University. At first, all went swimmingly. I sat in on a history lesson for trainee primary school teachers. Pictures drawn from the Roman, Viking and Anglo-Saxon periods were handed out to groups of students gathered round tables and they were invited to say which came from which.
I was asked to join a group which, the lecturer indicated, might need a little help. He was right. `Was it King Alfred at the Battle of Hastings?'
one of the young women asked me.
A little later, I too ran into trouble after I had been introduced to a group of staff and students. The students seemed untypically mature, Even so, I discovered later, they had been unwilling to meet me unless members of staff were present, There was a barely concealed hostility in the air.
Having already been told by recently qualified teachers that they had not been taught how to teach children to read, it seemed fair to raise the question with this group. They had been introduced to `a range of strategies', replied one. Yes, I said, but had they been taught how to teach all the strategies in the range?
`You can't expect anyone to be expert in everything,' remarked one of the student teachers. You had to use `a combination of strategies', said another. Children learnt how to read in so many different ways. But, if I was asking whether they'd had a lecture on how to teach children to read, no, they hadn't.
We moved on to the question of group work. One of the students, who had done her dissertation on the subject, said that children had often not been taught how to operate in groups. The result was that one of them would put their head on the desk, while another did the work and the rest talked about what had been on telly the previous night.
It was, she admitted, easy for them to get `off task', but it did foster the idea of working together and thinking for others. The older or more able children often came up with `learning strategies' which the less able could then take on board. Nobody said what the teacher might be coming up with at the time.
I remarked that I had visited a primary school in South London, where one of the best teachers I had ever seen did a good deal of whole-class teaching and precious little group work, yet produced excellent results. `Sounds like an advantaged school,' retorted one student darkly. Exactly the opposite, I replied. The school was surrounded by tower blocks and half the pupils were from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds.
In his experience, interjected a member of staff who dealt with the problems of helping Special Needs children, with whole-class teaching there was always `a section who fell off the bottom'. Anyway, it wasn't just academic results that mattered. They were concerned with things like `life skills' and `relationships'. `The hidden curriculum,' murmured one of the students.
One young woman, who admitted to being a Daily Mail reader, confessed that, during her teaching practice in schools, she'd felt that, for certain lessons, she'd have preferred the children to be sitting at individual desks facing the board. When they were in groups round tables they had to crane their necks all the time, which was hardly conducive to learning. `You'll have to be careful,' I said, `because you're questioning the reigning orthodoxy.'
As the session neared its close, one of the senior staff in the English department, who had been regarding me with a baleful eye, finally exploded.
I was not to report, she insisted, that the students did not know how to teach children to read. They had been taught all the basic methods.
But why, then, had they not said so? `They did,' she replied, `but they did it in a sophisticated way.' And then, after I had been berated by one of the student teachers for sub-professional conduct, in that I had not written down every word they had spoken, the meeting came to a less than cordial conclusion.
After lunch I had the chance to observe a science lesson, where groups of would-be primary teachers were sitting round nests of tables studying plants collaboratively, while an instructress circulated among them. It seemed a good opportunity to ask how much of the talk around the tables was actually on the subject - 80 pc, said one young man; only 75 pc, admitted another.
It made me wonder what the percentage might be among children, who were presumably less motivated than these trainee professionals; 50 pc, perhaps?
Finally I watched my friend the English lecturer teaching students how to encourage children to open up and talk. She was using a book called Would You Rather? which, she said, had been recommended for the later stages of primary school. It involved asking children questions such as `Would you rather be covered in jam, pulled through the mud by a dog or soaked with water?' and `Would you rather eat spider's dew or slug dumplings?'
Perhaps I am wrong, but they seemed to be questions tailor-made to elicit stupid, not to say ribald responses rather than start a constructive exchange. The students, some of whom had already had some classroom experience, may have shared the same anxiety.
Would questions like that not start a free-for-all, asked one? Would the children not yell out? You had to make them hold up their hands before speaking, replied the lecturer. Her own preferred method if things became noisy was to close the book ostentatiously. My own `strategy' would have been never to open it in the first place.
Though many fine and able people are still going into the teaching profession, having seen what happens in some of our training institutions, I can well understand why the Teacher Training Agency is thinking hard about other ways of getting them trained. They would involve students spending more time in schools and even less in colleges.
While some of the people I met were thoroughly courteous and even open-minded, a good many were astonishingly illiberal and defensive, not to say chippy.
The other inescapable conclusion from all I saw and heard is that the techniques which many colleges advocate run exactly contrary to those Chris Woodhead and most of his Ofsted inspectors are fighting, with might and main, to promote in schools.
He wants to see a substantial proportion of whole-class teaching. They are hotbeds of `collaborative' group learning and `differentiated' programmes tailored to the individual child. Often, they are openly hostile to the whole-class approach. He is keen on phonics as a basis for reading.
Again, they are often either hostile to it or offer it only as one of their beloved `range of strategies'. How many of them teach students how to teach it well is even more open to question.
Woodhead and his men want every child, including the most able, to be challenged and stretched. The colleges often focus heavily on the less able.
`The root of everything,' Woodhead told me, `is the beliefs, values and assumptions which underlie the actions of teachers in classrooms. How are these beliefs formed? They are formed in teacher training institutions. The anti-competitiveness and sentimentality which some teachers display as a result of their training really worries me. If teachers are led to believe that it wrong to stretch children, to challenge them, for fear that they will fail, then we have a problem.'
Mr Woodhead, we do have a problem, and a very deep-seated one.…