Identity crisis for the new generation of teachers

January 23, 1998

Trainee teacher Toby Marshall thinks his fellow students have bought new Labour's hype on education and forgotten about developing intellectual independence

In September 1996 I enrolled on a postgraduate certificate of education course at the London Institute of Education. Coming from a family of teachers, the importance of education had been drummed into me. I also loved my subject - media studies - and could think of nothing better than being paid to teach it. I started my course with high expectations.

I started following the education debate. Education, it was said, could cure economic decline, moral decay and political apathy, all before the lunch bell. Teachers, I was surprised to find, were now expected to be social workers, political activists and spiritual leaders.

The grand claims being made of education troubled me. Surely education was about the intellectual development of students, not the problems of society. I soon realised that my views were somewhat passe. This set me thinking about the attitudes and beliefs of my fellow trainees. I remember asking a friend what he thought education was about. "Warehousing youth, keeping young people of the streets," he replied clinically. Unsure if I was going to end up a probation officer, I asked a few more fellow students. "Social justice, education is the great leveller, the only answer to the poverty trap," said one. "Self-knowledge is the answer," claimed another, "because one can't do anything until one knows oneself." I was now sure that the profession was in the middle of an identity crisis.

Towards the end of my first term, two friends (Dave Perks and Alec Turner) and I came up with the idea of a survey. Dave and Alec were practising teachers who were troubled by the changes in education. We hoped to get a sense of the attitudes and beliefs of the next generation of teachers. After all, they would be shaping the future of education.

By the end of my course we had interviewed 167 trainees at a number of training institutions in England and Scotland. Our respondents were a broad mix of students; typically a female postgraduate aged between 18 and 24 studying to be a secondary school teacher.

The most striking result of our survey was the fact that most trainees did not see their subject knowledge as their most important qualification. Personality and communication skills, they argued, were most important because the teacher's job was to facilitate students' learning. They believed that qualities such as being "good at relating to people" or having "pleasant looks" were the most important factors in successful teaching.

They had differing perspectives on the aims of education, too. Some pushed the acquisition of vocational skills, others social inclusion. Many argued for self-knowledge as the ultimate aim of education and some promoted the fostering of intellectual autonomy. One would-be social engineer argued that the transmission of skills was important because the "ultimate aim of education is to produce useful students". Another argued for the importance of self-knowledge as students "can't do anything until they know themselves".

In terms of their vision of the future of education, trainees fervently promoted access for all. They attacked selection and differentiation in comprehensives and wanted to see the expansion of the post-compulsory sector. They argued that the ivory towers of higher education should open the doors to those who have traditionally been excluded.

They also hoped for a system of education in which all types of education would be accorded parity of esteem. As one put it, "there should be an end to different status for different types of education". They felt that vocational, personal, social and academic education should all be considered to be of equivalent value.

To enable greater access they wanted to see a more diverse curriculum organised around the differing needs and experiences of young people. They also wanted to limit the role of traditional subject-based education, as one trainee said, "we need holistic education - geared towards the development of the whole person, and not just their cognitive abilities".

My generation of teachers believes that it is its responsibility to meet the vocational, economic, spiritual and political needs of their students. In accepting these dubious responsibilities it loses sight of what I think is crucial - namely the task of developing the intellectual independence of schoolchildren.

Although it might not know it, my generation of teachers is very, very new Labour in its educational thinking. The recent white paper, Excellence in Schools, shares its first principle - inclusion through diversity. As the white paper puts it: "The 21st century will demand that we develop the diverse talents of all pupils."

I finished my teacher training course convinced that education should concern itself with the intellectual development of students. I left worried that my contemporaries had bought new Labour's education hype.

Toby Marshall was a PGCE student in 1996-97 at the Institute of Education, London.

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