Train or Educate Teachers? Whether Teachers Should Spend More Time in Apprentice-Like Programs or in University Classrooms Is at the Heart of the Teacher Education Debate in the U.K

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Many debates in education are echoes of past arguments. This is true of teacher education in England. Michael Gove, our new education secretary, inspired an outpouring of anguish after setting out some brief thoughts on how people should prepare to enter the teaching profession.

"We will reform teacher training to shift trainee teachers out of college and into the classroom," he promised in a major, wide-ranging speech delivered within six weeks of the new centre-right Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government assuming power, taking over after 13 years of Labour rule. Gove is a Conservative.

"Teaching is a craft and it is best learned as an apprentice observing a master craftsman or woman. Watching others, and being rigorously observed yourself as you develop, is the best route to acquiring mastery in the classroom," he added.

This speech appeared to mine a rich seam of thought, followed politically in England mainly by Gove's party. This has, for at least 25 years now, sought to emphasize the importance of trainee teachers learning the practicalities of their future profession "on the job" in school classrooms rather than mainly absorbing theory in university lecture halls.

Readers who don't live in the United Kingdom might not realize that most people training to be teachers here already spend most of their time working in schools. In 1984, Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government introduced national guidelines designed to increase the time trainee teachers spend learning "on the job." In 1989, these figures were increased. In 1992, Thatcher's successor, John Major, raised the figures again so that postgraduate teacher trainees, who make up the bulk of the 40,000 people trained to enter the profession every year, now must spend two-thirds of their time working in schools.

Given this existing requirement, there might not be much opportunity to increase it even more without doing away with theoretical study altogether. The government has not signalled its intention to do this, perhaps knowing that doing so would provoke a monumental outcry.

So what was Gove getting at in his speech other than playing to old fears on the right that universities are, as one observer put it incredulously to me, "hotbeds of radicalism" whose influence always need to be curtailed?

He may have some answers to this charge. He is likely to be able to put forward one way of strengthening the emphasis on in-school teacher education that has commanded some cross-party support.

In recent decades, the dominant route into teaching in England has been university-based, with students either completing undergraduate degrees in education or taking a postgraduate course. However, since the 1990s, another route has developed, which is called School Centred Initial Teacher Training. In this case, student teachers work in at least two schools with their training designed and delivered by a consortium of schools in partnership with other institutions, which are often universities.

Only one in 25 new teachers is currently trained through this route. But, in January, a cross-party Parliamentary committee recommended increasing that number, and the new government seems likely to heed this advice.

Gove is also an enthusiastic proponent of Teach First, a scheme modeled on Teach for America in which graduates from leading universities are encouraged to spend the first two years of their careers working in challenging high schools. …