For a discipline that prides itself on being relevant and applied, far too much of its research remains largely irrelevant to the world of educational policy or practice
Education is the UK’s second biggest social science; only business and administration employs more academic staff in our universities.
But as a discipline, it is at a major turning point - a crisis even.
Academic disciplines are not merely intellectually coherent fields of study, they also have a political life. They are argued for, supported, challenged and debated - and nowhere more so than in education.
Education as a discipline has rarely been master of its own destiny, mainly because it remains dominated by its role in providing professional preparation to teachers.
Although research, higher degrees and, increasingly, “non-professional” undergraduate degrees are vitally important to education faculties, initial teacher education still accounts for two of every three students in the field.
At least, that used to be the case. In England, things are about to change.
In June last year, Michael Gove, who is pursuing an agenda of rapid and dramatic change as education secretary, announced that by the end of this Parliament, well over half of all teacher training places in England will be delivered by schools rather than universities.
Under a new “School Direct” scheme, most of the funding will go directly to schools, which will then be free to “purchase” those services they need from a university of their choice or from another accredited provider.
If the scheme comes to fruition - and Gove seems determined to ensure that it will - it will mean that in the future, only a minority of initial teacher education in England will be provided through our university system.
This would represent a huge change indeed, but the challenge to the contribution made by our universities is not new.
For more than 25 years, “alternative routes” into teaching (Teach First and the Graduate Teacher Programme) have been slowly gaining ground.
Universities have also been progressively squeezed out of the provision of the “in-service” courses provided to teachers who are already in the classroom. Until the 1990s, they had a virtual monopoly in this area, whereas today the vast majority of this funding goes directly to schools for internal training.
And under New Labour and the current coalition, government contracts for major educational research projects can just as easily go to private consortia and consultancy companies as to university research teams.
From every quarter, it seems that the contribution of our universities to the field of education is being questioned and diluted.
This is not the case in other countries.
Although a few states in the US, such as Tennessee, have been even more aggressive in pushing alternative routes into teaching, the overwhelming majority of countries continue to put their faith, and resources, in universities.
In a report to the US government in 2012 on the implications of the most recent results from its Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development makes clear that the most successful school systems in the world - such as Finland and Singapore - have forms of teacher education that place strong emphasis on the practicalities of teaching in schools but also retain a commitment to university-based provision.
Such systems allow prospective teachers to study how young people learn as well as to engage with the findings of the latest pedagogical research.
They also encourage prospective teachers to develop as researchers themselves by offering well-supported opportunities to undertake postgraduate degrees.
The traditional role of universities in initial teacher training is also being maintained in other parts of the UK.
In Scotland in 2011, the Donaldson report reaffirmed the centrality of the universities’ contribution; in Wales, a master’s degree is being launched for all newly qualified teachers; and in the Republic of Ireland, postgraduate training for new teachers is being lengthened from one to two years, undergraduate degrees are also being extended and in the future all courses are to be provided by research-led university departments rather than by stand-alone teachers’ colleges.
Only England and a few Southern US states are the outliers.
How has it come to this? The truth is that education in our universities, particularly in England and Wales, has never been especially secure.
Universities first opened their doors to teachers in the 1890s with the establishment of day training colleges.
Within a generation, these institutions had become departments of education: they appointed professors and became home to the first educational research.
But this was always the minority system, which served mainly to prepare teachers for work in fee-paying secondary schools.
The much larger system of religious and (after 1902) local authority colleges, which focused on preparing the “teachers of the masses”, was separate and largely inferior in terms of resources and educational vision for its students.
The vice-chancellors of the day were keen to keep such institutions at arm’s length, fearing that any alliance would not only undermine their commitment to loftier forms of knowledge but also endanger their independence from government.
It was not until 1963, when the Robbins report recommended that teaching become a graduate profession, that the two systems began to merge - but even then it took 30 years for the majority of colleges to become fully integrated into the university world. Today, all but a handful of small religious colleges are fully part of the university system.
Education’s journey to becoming a university discipline was a long one, taking almost 100 years to complete, but in the end it was a pyrrhic victory.
By the time education finally “arrived” at the high table, universities themselves had changed utterly. As a consequence of the expansion of higher education and the significant reduction in university funding, departments and faculties of education, like many other disciplines, have found it essential to become highly market-sensitive and entrepreneurial to survive.
They have had to become particularly adept at responding quickly to the ever-more-prescriptive demands of their primary paymaster - the government.
Added to this, the late 20th-century “collapse of certainty” that came about as a consequence of the postmodernist critique was particularly undermining in a professional field such as education. The loss of confidence in “educational science” meant that it was much harder to argue that universities had something distinctive to contribute to the study of education.
In some ways, this progressive undermining of the position of education is no different from that experienced across the higher education system.
As the US historian of higher education Sheldon Rothblatt pointed out several years ago, the root of the “discontents” of the modern university is that there is no longer a coherent idea or set of ideas about what a university actually is - no one seems able to speak for them.
The discipline of education in our universities urgently needs to find a voice, to set out a vision for itself, to state what its purpose should be in the modern world.
Universities, it is often observed, are increasingly only one of many authoritative “voices” craving attention in society; sophisticated organisations run by highly educated workforces and new technologies are combining to “decentre” them.
But universities retain one vitally important principle that marks them out from all other institutions, and that is their commitment to what we might call “the contestability of knowledge” or the “maximisation of reason” in society.
Our confidence in the “truth” of our knowledge may now be tempered; we know that any “truths” that research and scholarship can reveal are partial and only temporary - in the end they atrophy.
But what does not change is our commitment to the process of the pursuit of truth. Generating and assessing evidence, challenging and contesting assumptions; these are processes that go to the heart of our teaching and research.
Educationalists need to win the argument that those studying education need the opportunity to engage with evidence, to challenge underlying assumptions, to debate ends as well as means.
Surely if anyone in our society needs the opportunity to engage in these sorts of activities, to benefit from what universities have to offer, it is the teachers and lecturers who will educate our next generation.
With rapid changes in technology, the explosion of knowledge, the major changes in society brought about by ever-growing mobility, diversity and potential conflict, we need to educate young people to think critically about knowledge and values, to recognise differences in interpretation and to develop skills to form their own judgements.
This makes it essential that the professionals who work with them at all levels of the educational system have benefited from a personal and professional education that is “critical” and prepares them to deal with uncertainties effectively themselves.
But if education is to win these arguments, it, too, will need to change. Educationalists urgently need to develop collaborative partnerships with teachers, schools and other parties: however important a university’s contribution, it is only ever part of the story.
And for a discipline that prides itself on being relevant and applied, far too much of its research remains largely irrelevant to the world of educational policy or practice. That means that educationalists must put far more effort than before into working collaboratively in the development of research and working more effectively with “knowledge brokers” such as thinktanks.
It even means thinking about new institutional structures, under which the boundaries between schools, colleges, industry and universities are less sharply drawn.
Only if educationalists can demonstrate the value of their work more effectively than they have in the past can they expect to continue to find public support.
Finally, faculties and departments of education need to take research far more seriously.
Although education is one of the largest social sciences in the UK, it is salutary to note that only one-third of education academics were entered for the last research assessment exercise, while only 23 per cent of education academics currently have a doctorate as their highest qualification.
At the same time, we know that education has the highest proportion of teaching-only staff in any social science - about 34 per cent - many of them on casualised contracts.
While there may be sound economic reasons for these uncomfortable facts, university managers must recognise that every time core university teaching is undertaken by staff who are not supported in research, who are not part of the scholarly culture that maintains commitment to the contestability of know-ledge, it fundamentally undermines universities’ claim that they have something essentially distinctive to contribute.
Forty years ago, the writer and philosopher Robert Pirsig observed that the idea of a university was hard to pin down. It could not be defined in terms of buildings or courses; instead, he argued, “the real university is a state of mind…[it] is nothing less than the continuing body of reason itself”.
Those in education have as much right as, and perhaps more need than, many others in society to develop that state of mind.
Educationalists need to stand up and be counted, and help to rescue education’s university project before it is too late.
Gove the ‘Red-baiter’
Michael Gove has had a turbulent relationship with the higher education sector in recent years.
“The impression is that it is ‘Govey’ versus academia,” the education secretary remarked in a speech in March that mocked 100 academics who had published a letter criticising his plans to reform the national curriculum.
“But there is good academia and bad academia. We now have the means to discover what really works, rather than rely on prejudice,” he told the conference of headteachers.
He followed this up with a polemic for the Mail on Sunday in which he accused the professors of being on another planet (a “Red” one) and of valuing Marxism more than learning.
“One of the letter’s principal signatories claims to write ‘from a classical Marxist perspective’,” he wrote disdainfully, “another studies ‘how masculinities and femininities operate as communities of practice’, a third makes their life work an ‘intergenerational ethnography of the intersection of class, place, education and school resistance’.”
The former Times journalist said that it was therefore “no surprise” that two of the 100 signatories had co-authored a paper “proclaiming ‘Marxism is as relevant as ever’”: “It certainly seems to be if you want a position in a university department of education”.
He went on to describe such academics as having had a stranglehold over education policy for far too long.
“School reformers in the past often complained about what was called The Blob - the network of educational gurus in and around our universities who praised each other’s research, sat on committees that drafted politically correct curricula, drew gifted young teachers away from their vocation and instead directed them towards ideologically driven theory.”
But his government is “taking on” The Blob, Gove declared.
“We have abolished the quangos they controlled. We have given a majority of secondary schools academy status so they are free from the influence of The Blob’s allies in local government. We are moving teacher training away from university departments and into our best schools. And we are reforming our curriculum and exams to restore the rigour they abandoned,” he wrote, demonstrating the scale and scope of some of the changes he has initiated.
In February, however, Gove had to perform a humiliating U-turn on one of his key policies, abandoning plans to replace GCSEs with English Baccalaureate Certificates and to introduce an exam board franchising system.
Gove’s drive to push more teacher training out of universities and into the classroom - stemming from his belief that “the best people to teach teachers are teachers” - has led to claims that he lacks understanding of initial teacher education in universities and warnings that universities will be forced to make redundancies.
The sector also raised concerns about the detail of the education secretary’s plans to give universities more say over the content of A levels, highlighting the time and cost implications and the levels of bureaucracy involved. Gove has had to tone down his original plan for universities to “take ownership” of the exams.
Meanwhile, the Russell Group has questioned the decision to separate the AS level from the A level, warning that it could harm its members’ admissions processes, although the group has welcomed his decision to review the modular structure of the A level.
And the Department for Education’s focus on the Russell Group of universities has also been unpopular with the rest of the sector.
Earlier this year, Sir David Bell, the former permanent secretary at the DfE who is now vice-chancellor of the University of Reading, called a decision to publish data showing how many pupils from individual schools go on to Russell Group universities “narrow and naive”.
Times Higher Education staff