September 26, 2013

Hey, teacher, leave those trainers alone

I agree with Anthony Seldon (“Right to reply”, Opinion, 19 September): university students should receive high-quality teaching and effective student feedback should inform staff appraisals. However, I must take issue with some of his supporting arguments.

As a teacher educator, I question the rationale for taking “teacher training out of universities”. In reality, it has always been predominantly delivered in schools by schools: take the traditional PGCE, for example, where it has been the norm for trainee teachers to spend 60 days in academic-led training and 120 days based in schools. The quality of the teacher-trainee experience no longer resembles that which Seldon may have experienced 30 or so years ago. Quality assurance procedures are rigorously adhered to, close partnerships with schools promote continuing dialogue, and personal tutoring and mentoring from university and school staff offer support and constructive feedback. Module evaluation data are regularly sought and acted upon to improve the student experience. This partnership model is “the right way to go”.

The quality of teaching and learning in university teacher education is high, as is confirmed by National Student Survey results and Ofsted inspections. Those of us committed to and experienced in teacher education, with many years of proven experience in schools, insist on recruiting only the best tutors and lecturers with a record of teaching excellence (often including former headteachers), and always seek student feedback on potential lecturers’ teaching skills. Indeed, I would suggest that all university departments adopt this model.

Such recruitment practice is superior to Seldon’s dubious use of “gut instinct” to predict teachers’ potential effectiveness at interview. Since his daughter and her friends identified members of his own staff who “did not care”, one would hope that he has now revised his recruitment practices and dealt with the perceived absence of student feedback he now deems so crucial. I find it surprising that as a headteacher of six years in that school, he did not know the strengths and weaknesses of his staff and had to be alerted to them anecdotally during a trip to the airport.

Seldon’s vague suggestions about “encouraging a reflective approach”, providing “peer-to-peer mentoring” and imposing “penalties” for inadequate teaching will not in themselves produce high-quality university teachers. We need a framework to develop teaching skills, evidence-based research to enhance students’ learning and effective assessment strategies with good-quality feedback. Perhaps Seldon’s exclusive experience of the independent sector, which can bypass the regulatory requirements for formal teaching qualifications the rest of us face, has clouded his judgement.

Patrick Smith
Kendal, Cumbria

I was offended by the comments made by Samantha Twiselton, director of the Sheffield Institute of Education, in your article “Don’t be precious, sector’s teacher educators told” (News, 12 September). She implies that teacher educators in universities and colleges do not value schools and the vital role they play in educating students in this most admirable of professions.

It is demoralising enough that the coalition seeks (at almost every opportunity and with little or no evidence) to undermine the many highly successful higher education-school partnerships built upon mutual respect for the skills, expertise, experience and personal attributes of all who care about the schooling of future generations. I would welcome a few figures from Twiselton to support her assertion that higher education teacher educators are arrogant enough to think “we can do it all the best”.

I then read Anthony Seldon’s opinion piece, which continued the teacher education bashing. I have no difficulty with his analysis of the common characteristics of great teachers, nor his argument that their qualities can be encouraged and developed. What I take issue with is his narrow-minded view that the education required to develop these characteristics is achievable only in schools (hence his support for the Conservative-led “teaching school” initiative introduced in 2011).

His view that teacher educators do not take school-based training seriously is mistaken. When did Seldon last visit a teacher education unit in a university or college? NSS survey data, internal student evaluations and, yes, “peer-to-peer” observations and mentoring keep us all on our toes. Unlike Seldon overhearing his daughter and her friends talking about which of his staff made the grade, information about lecturers teaching today is continuously sought and acted upon.

There is always room for improvement and we should aim to raise standards. But I cannot accept that teacher training should be the sole preserve of schools, or that higher education-based teacher educators don’t care. We do care and do value the role schools play in producing teachers. This is a process of true “partnership”, not in the sense the coalition is misusing the term, promoting its ideology by redefining it in this context to mean “schools in the lead”.

Clive Opie
Dean of the McMillan School of Teaching, Health and Care
Bradford College

Mortality count

The suggestion that I “fabricated” a death-roll for Dresden is untrue (review of The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 by Richard Overy, Books, 19 September). In my book The Destruction of Dresden (1963), I cited the figure given to me by Hans Voigt, the German official charged by the lord mayor of Dresden with establishing the death-roll in 1945; he was in a better position to assess the number than Overy.

Your review does not mention that I found two years ago in the British National Archives a decoded message dated 24 March 1945, in which the mayor is quoted as stating that 80,000 to 100,000 victims of the air raid are listed as “missing”, which he had stated a day or two earlier meant “dead and unidentifiable”.

David Irving

Steps in overseas direction

When the government originally consulted stakeholders, including universities and public authorities, on the removal of the post-study work route for international students, just 6 per cent of respondents argued that the tier-one path should be closed (“Let the right ones stay for payday”, News, 19 September). Yet the decision was made to shut the scheme anyway.

Part of the attraction for overseas students in coming to the UK was the fact that the two-year post-study work visa allowed them time to apply for positions and gain valuable work experience before returning home. So the initial restrictions were and remain a cause for concern with regards to international student recruitment.

The subsequent exemption of doctoral candidates from the restrictions is a step in the right direction, but in a changeable job market the bar is still set too high. Master’s and first-class degree exemptions, as suggested by Vince Cable, the business secretary, would be better still. And while I agree with Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England, that more “ifs and buts” about exceptions are not necessarily desirable, given the bigger picture I would welcome even the chance of progress that Cable hints at.

James Pitman
Managing director
HE – UK and Europe
Study Group

Spectres of exclusion

Satire is always very refreshing, but snobbery, class condescension and sexism dressed up as satire? (“Reach out and touch”, The Poppletonian, 19 September.)

Clearly the spectre behind Laurie Taylor’s “humorous” stab at our Humanities in Public initiative is the image of the Neet – the young person not in education, employment or training – as feral lumpen prole, the barely civilised and inarticulate man in a van, the hoodie, presumably interested only in twerking and Jeremy Kyle. What this image blots out (among many other things) is the existence of female Neets who indeed are very much interested in public debates on body images and 21st-century feminism.

And nothing has greater cultural currency than “contemporary Gothic” because zombies, werewolves and ghosts are everywhere these days. The increasing popularity of Gothic imagery has been linked to the recession and the widening chasm between rich and poor, and as such its critical analysis is of major interest to Neets, whose futures are haunted by economic uncertainty and governmental neglect.

Berthold Schoene and Helen Malarky
Manchester Metropolitan University

Gravity’s rainbow

I may have found a flaw in Chibuihem Amalaha’s scholarly work on the use of physical laws to condemn gay marriage (The week in higher education, 19 September).

While the work of Ampère, Coulomb and others tells us that like magnetic poles repel each other and, indeed, like charges repel each other, Newton’s law of universal gravitation indicates that identical masses attract each other. This suggests that from a gravitational standpoint, gay marriage may be entirely natural. Indeed, since the ultimate fate of the Universe depends on gravity rather than the electromagnetic force, gay marriage may become compulsory for us all.

However, given that the Universe will either suffer what is known as its “heat death” or fall victim to an unstoppable collapse in which the whole of creation is destroyed, we may be forced to conclude that while gay marriages will become dominant throughout the Universe, they will also result in its grisly demise. Perhaps we should listen to the warnings of the religious Right after all.

Matthew Handy
Director of mathematics

Flat rate

You report, in a mix of outrage and consternation, that about “£2,000 went on 880 bottles of sparkling wine” at the recent farewell party for the provost of University College London (The week in higher education, 19 September). You also quote that “‘the bottles far outnumbered the guests’”. That is hardly surprising: if I found myself at a party where the main sources of refreshment were £2. bottles of fizz, I would soon find a reason not to be there, too.

David Bowers
Head of learning development
University Campus Suffolk

Measuring boom and bust

Failure analysis” raises interesting points, but is rather simplistic in considering what failure is (From where I sit, 5 September). In the case of a bridge collapsing it is quite clear, but only recently there was the suggestion that poor design exacerbated the 130-vehicle pile-up at the Sheppey Crossing in Kent (failure may not be all or nothing).

When it comes to higher education, “failure” is more complex still. Is it a failure of recruitment if a student leaves because the course was not what they expected? If a student gets what they want and leaves without completing, is that a failure? (It may not be for the student, but what about the university or the funder?)

We need a wider discussion of what we mean by success and failure. My fear is that governments and universities look at them only from the institutional perspective and not from the students’, so come up with remedies that meet policy goals rather than student needs.

Tom Franklin
Tom Franklin Consulting

Memes testing

In his enthusiastic review of Christianity and the University Experience: Understanding Student Faith by Mathew Guest, Kristin Aune, Sonya Sharma and Rob Warner (Books, 12 September), Gerald J. Pillay urges us to make sense of the resilience of faith among university students and not to debunk it using “Richard Dawkins’ wildly imaginative notion of ‘memes’”.

However, it should be noted that the existence of memes and the spread of ideas within a culture is at least open to empirical test, whereas the existence of God is an entirely different matter.

R. E. Rawles
Honorary research fellow in psychology
University College London

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