Dear Michael Gove: a letter from a ‘bad academic’

Teacher-turned-scholar Jon Berry sends a message to the education minister on the theory behind best practice

June 13, 2013

Teachers and lecturers understand they’re fair game, but I hoped the secretary of state would operate at a level above that of bar-room bore

Dear Mr Gove,

I am one of the 100 “bad academics” in university schools of education you have been so dismissive about of late.

You seem to think that we’re detached, overly theoretical, self-congratulatory and ideologically driven to the point of simple-mindedness.

I want to disabuse you of that view.

I started teaching back in 1976 and worked for many years in comprehensive schools doing a job I loved (despite the fact that your predecessors seemed intent on sucking the very lifeblood out of me and my colleagues).

While this isn’t a plea for special recognition, you should know that I also spent an inestimable amount of time – including weekends – directing plays, running teams and projects, helping with foreign exchanges and more.

Although I was opposed to the imposition of SATs, I was never opposed to testing children and I prided myself on preparing students for public exams. Good teachers want the very best for their pupils.

In 2004, after 28 years in the classroom, I went to work at a university school of education, taking, I hoped, my knowledge and experience to people starting in the profession and those already involved in it.

I appreciate that you don’t care for schools of education. You think we’re too theoretical – you said so in a document titled Training Our Next Generation of Outstanding Teachers. (Incidentally, much of the research cited in that publication is rather difficult to track down.)

You contend that, broadly speaking, people embarking on a teaching career would be better off in schools. As it happens, we think that they should be spending a good deal of time in schools too – but not too much and not too soon.

It’s a truism that many people come to teaching because they were inspired by a particular teacher and that’s to be applauded. However, one of the first things that such student teachers have to learn is that mere mimicry is not enough; there needs to be some analysis and, yes, theorising, about why that teacher was successful and engaging. Teachers need an understanding of learning theories, cognition and the factors that contribute to successful teaching and learning.

Schools of education also work with serving teachers. I am currently supervising school-based research for teachers working towards a master’s degree, and the topics range from playtime games in primary schools to the use of learning journals to improve A-level performance. Meanwhile a doctoral student – also a primary headteacher – is conducting a study into more effective liaison between schools and parents.

You imply that in our cosy coterie, academics dozily accept research projects and investigations, letting them through on the nod. This demonstrates an alarming misunderstanding of the rigour and scrutiny of peer review – and also the underlying mistrust of all education professionals that seems to characterise your approach. Why are you so threatened by informed opinion? Perhaps it is because it challenges some precepts that are dear to you. All we want is the best for young people. I had hoped that we lived in a society where disagreement and debate were distinguishable from heresy.

In any case, you’re not listening, and there’s the rub. After 37 years of teaching and research, call me arrogant, but I think I’m worth listening to.

One of the pitfalls of being a teacher is that everyone has a view about your job (because everyone has been to school). That’s fine: teachers and lecturers understand that they’re fair game at parties, social gatherings and on radio phone-ins. But I might have hoped that the secretary of state operated on a level marginally above that of a bar-room bore. Maybe my expectations are too high – but that can’t be, can it? Because, of course, I’m the one “fighting excellence” and “tolerating failure”.

Yours sincerely

Jon Berry
School of Education
University of Hertfordshire

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