How history can illumine our future

April 11, 1997

To mention the importance of historical perspective during a general election campaign is probably about as fruitless as Moby's attempt to swim out of the Firth of Forth.

I recently heard Richard Aldrich on "the end of history and the beginning of education" and was reminded that the future of teacher education probably depends on carefully researched historical perspective.

He quoted from the Daily Mail - "most parents and many teachers believe that children are less literate and numerate than they were 20 years ago" - and the Daily Mirror, which applauded the "mounting backlash against progressive methods". He then pointed out that the comments were made years before the present government came to power.

Former education secretary Kenneth Baker, has described his difficulty in raising educational matters through cabinet, "because the one subject on which cabinet ministers love to digress in a very ill-informed way is reminiscing about their own school days". A combination of tabloid assertions and cabinet musings exert an enormous influence on education.

The teacher training curriculum has been strictly controlled by governments since the 1850s. Yet in our current culture of blame, teacher trainers are a constant target for our education failings.

Professor Aldrich argues that in the UK education is not perceived as an academic discipline and unlike France, Germany, Ireland, Italy and Spain it has never enjoyed any great intellectual prestige. He urges a more coherent approach in the UK "both to the development of a discipline of education and to its connections with educational policies and practices", so that there may be a "broadly agreed consensus as regards educational theory and practice to set against hasty, unwarranted or ideologically-based innovation".

Professor Aldrich summed up his role as a historian of education as demonstrating continuities and changes, and distinguishing "that which is important and long lasting from that which is shallow and transient". He made no reference to the Teacher Training Agency.

The role he described is in stark contrast to the comments made by the chief executive of the TTA in a letter to the THES (February 21). In what could have been entitled "the end of education and the abolition of history", Anthea Millett states: "Initial teacher training is not an academic study, and therefore, an intrinsic part of higher education." Far from being an innovative statement, this follows the UK tradition of dismissing the importance of education as a university subject and ignoring history.

The letter goes on to assert that vice chancellors, principals and deans of education who work "with local education authorities and schools to develop regional training consortia through which ITT and in-service training can be delivered" are far-sighted.

Yet area training organisations, abolished nearly 20 years ago, were designed to achieve just this kind of cooperative relationship. The McNair report and teacher education sections of the Robbins report have been conveniently ignored. Cooperation and partnership are not new. The TTA is.

One can understand that the first priority of a quango is to survive any change of government, but surely not at the expense of history, truth and experience. We must maintain and strengthen the link between teacher training and higher education.

Ignoring the lessons of history will have a much more profound effect on our children in schools that any attempt by the TTA to justify its existence.

Rita Donaghy is permanent secretary of the Institute of Education student union, and a member of the national executive of UNISON, the TUC General Council and the European TUC executive.

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