Eton mess

July 23, 2015

It is ironic indeed that the head of the most elitist education institute in the UK, one that is supported by ample private funding, chooses to deliver a sweeping attack on a sector that is struggling to survive on substantially smaller – and shrinking – teaching-related funding (“Lecturers’ skills not up to scratch, says Eton head”, News, 9 July).

From the perspective of someone who has been teaching first-year undergraduates over the past decade, many of whom have been to private schools, it is clear that students’ abilities to engage in critical thinking and take charge of their learning have fallen in this time period. Even basic numeracy skills are now so poor that many students struggle with elementary concepts. Unfortunately, no amount of high-quality lecturing skills can make up for these systematic deficiencies in the educational background of these students. If this is the result of the so-called pedagogy emphasis that Tony Little seems to be so enamoured with, then it is not clear in what sense universities have anything to learn from the secondary education sector, other than what not to do.

If Little cared about access and standards, he should focus on the falling standards of secondary education and the inequalities in provision that can be addressed only by a redistribution of funds from the private school sector to state schools.


As a governor of a selective state school, I was delighted to see that these comments came from the head of Eton because I knew that what he had said needed saying, and that the commentator would have to be very strong to withstand a virulent counter-attack.

I share many of Little’s concerns. The learning needs of the children we teach are changing and the higher education sector should listen, aim to work harder with state and private sector schools, and be prepared to draw on best practice wherever it is found.

From my own experience of open days, where one might expect universities to put on their best face, the standard varied between subjects and institution. At some, the skill of presenters was superb, vivid, inspirational and involving; I would want to study their subject and go to their university. At others, I was talked at and talked down to.

State schools such as mine have great teachers and have raised their game in recent years. The more closely sixth-form teachers and those in universities listen to each other, the more we will learn together and the more we will achieve for our students.

Mark Pegg

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Reader's comments (1)

Slow down, everyone, and less of the argumentum ad hominem. However, I declare an interest. I am joining the board of the same Dubai company as Tony Little, but am also a governor of a former failed secondary school turned academy and have taught for decades in many universities. Leaving aside the fact that a good proportion of Eton fees are hotel fees, while university costs are not fully funded by student fees, so the fee comparison is not correct, we might concede that there is a problem caused by tuition having been reduced in priority relative to research in many universities, so that in some universities teaching money is cross-subsidising research, while junior staff, who often provide the front-line teaching for first year students, are often appointed primarily for their research potential or even early research performance, while their teaching skills and ability are judged by a simplistic trial process, on the questionable assumption that weaknesses can be fixed. As someone who has now retired from university teaching and now provides private tuition, I can give anecdotal evidence from many students who report that teaching quality in the first year is lower than in the sixth form, and that the quality of tutoring and mentoring is extremely poor, which is why they turn to me. We do know that we can't really rely on student surveys as currently carried out. Some good research has been done on this topic, but I think the comments already posted shows that more is needed. Nobody has cited anything so far - come on, you educational researchers!

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