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Tim Birkhead fears for the effect that higher fees will have on teaching

December 16, 2010

Education secretary Michael Gove's suggestion that no one with a third-class degree will be eligible for a place at teacher training college was a shocking idea for improving teaching in schools.

Third-class? Where has he been? Virtually no one, in my experience, gets a third-class degree any more. If they do, they must have bucked the system completely, not turned up, or suffered from blank-mind syndrome for at least a year. Had he said a lower second, I'd have been more reassured, but even then, rampant grade inflation has meant that such degrees are far in the minority.

A hollow promise then. And one that fails to get at the three main roots of the problem, which are the national curriculum, the tick-box culture of school examinations and the lowly social status of teachers.

Any graduate who's any good thinks twice about becoming a teacher in a system where there is precious little scope for imaginative teaching. Recently, one of our brightest and most able final-year undergraduates volunteered to go into a local school as an ambassador. After just one afternoon she came back, crushed by the bureaucracy and box-ticking culture. She had even been told by a teacher not to waste her time telling pupils about things that had no bearing on exams. A single afternoon's exposure to the school system was enough to destroy a potential teacher's enthusiasm. Well done!

What Gove needs to realise, if he has a genuine concern for education (in the strictest sense of the word), is that we are in a downward spiral of educational standards, fuelled by bureaucracy, accountability and targets. There are huge numbers of highly qualified, inspired under-graduates, motivated to teach the next generation - if only the process of teaching wasn't so D-U-L-L and so poorly rewarded.

I wonder if Gove has seen these quotes:

"Teaching is not filling a bucket, it is about lighting a fire" - William Butler Yeats.

"You don't fatten a pig by weighing it" - Chinese proverb.

"Tell me and I'll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I'll understand" - another Chinese proverb.

"It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education" - Albert Einstein. ("But does it, any more, thanks to the national curriculum?" Tim Birkhead.)

The school system, driven by league tables, treats pupils as customers. As one teacher told me recently, "We do everything for the kids at school, apart from sitting the ruddy exams."

My fear is that the increase in fees may cause this same stultifying mindset to take hold of university teaching - even more than it has already. The tentacles have been trying to secure a hold on us for some time. But like the hero of the film Clash of the Titans, the academy has - so far - hacked most of them back.

The increase in fees, however, will feed this particular monster like no other, and keeping the bureaucratic tentacles at bay will become more and more difficult.

In my kiss-of-death scenario, students become more like customers than ever. They're paying higher fees, and will demand a better outcome (read marks) for their money. To avoid complaints, the academy will impose uniformity on both teachers and teaching.

It has already started: we already send new lecturers on training courses. On the face of it, this seems like a good idea, but judging from my conversations with them, it is unlikely to transform people whose primary motivation to date is research into pedagogical enthusiasts.

Without changing the training courses themselves, insisting that new lecturers train as teachers is little more than the box-ticking, back-watching, bullshit exercise we see everywhere else. It isn't a commitment to undergraduate teaching, it's a mask.

We will also see a return to across-the-board lecture plans, which will destroy any individuality, to minimise the risk that lecturer A may be considered better than lecturer B and hence give cause for complaint. It seems inevitable that an increase in fees will be followed by an increase in litigation, as dissatisfied customers query their marks.

There's a second way of dealing with enhanced fees, but it will take cojones. It is a complete break away from bucket-filling, and a switch to fire-lighting. Only some kind of massive revolution - a change in the game, or at least the rules - can break the impasse and return the system to its core values.

We should give up many formal lectures and embrace new styles of teaching that involve undergraduates in discourse, in practical work, in doing science or doing the humanities. Tell undergraduates how discoveries were made, who discovered this or that, show them that researchers and scholars are real people - warts and all. Make it clear through such teaching that lecturers and professors are (mainly) just ordinary people, imbued with a passion for their subject - and often a passion for teaching it.

As I write, undergraduates are complaining - forcibly in many cases - about the rise in fees. Are we teachers going to let the government dictate how we teach them?

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