Teachers are not the only fruit of the IoE's diverse, evolving mission

Chris Husbands hails the institute's niche purpose and big-issue passions. Rebecca Attwood reports

January 13, 2011

Every teacher has a favourite classroom moment.

Chris Husbands, the new head of the Institute of Education, University of London and a former history teacher, recalled discussing medieval castles with a group of 12 year olds.

A young lad at the back of the class piped up: "'Ere sir, what did they use for bog paper then?" "Leaves," Professor Husbands replied.

Quick as a flash, the student responded: "What did they use in winter then? Holly?'"

He told the anecdote to illustrate why he "absolutely adored working with kids" and finding ways of getting them to learn.

The first person in his family to stay in school beyond the age of 14 - "my parents and grandparents were factory workers and coal miners and shop workers" - he nevertheless graduated with first-class honours with distinction from Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1980, and stayed on to gain his doctorate.

"I actually disliked doing my PhD at Cambridge hugely," Professor Husbands said, "but I did some teaching and loved it."

Working at a series of comprehensive schools, he was promoted rapidly through the ranks to senior management.

He remembers clearly the moment that triggered his move into academe.

"One Friday afternoon I was sorting out the bus duty rota for the following week and I thought, 'This is not why I became a teacher.'"

His first university post was at the University of East Anglia, where he started off training history teachers. Later, he ran the University of Warwick's Institute of Education before returning to UEA, where he was involved in setting up University Campus Suffolk.

In 2007, he took up the post of dean of the Faculty of Culture and Pedagogy at the IoE - the institution where, two decades earlier, he trained as a teacher.

It is not an easy time to take the helm at a specialist postgraduate institution.

Of particular concern, Professor Husbands said, is that the Browne Review says nothing about postgraduate teaching.

There must be doubts, he added, about the "positioning" of master's degrees in an age when people will graduate with up to £40,000 of debt.

However, he is confident that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills understands these issues and is aware that "something has to be done" about it.

'UK's best' social scientists

A frequent misperception about the IoE on the part of politicians and even some academics, Professor Husbands said, is that it is merely "a teacher training college with a few bits bolted on".

In fact, although it began life in 1902 as the London Day Training College, over the past 40 years it has established itself as a broadly based social science and educational research and teaching institution.

"We've got the largest and best team of quantitative social scientists anywhere in the UK," he said, pointing to the IoE's birth cohort studies of 1958, 1970 and, most recently, the Millennium Cohort Study. These major multidisciplinary research projects have followed the lives of thousands of children in the UK.

"Those are examples of work that positions us already way beyond where I imagine the founders of the institution in 1902 thought we might be," Professor Husbands said.

Teacher education makes up only about 15 per cent of the institute's business, although he acknowledged that it remained a "really important" part of its work.

The IoE offers more master's degrees in education and related fields than any other UK institution, a large doctoral programme, and even a "tiny" undergraduate programme.

"We're 40 per cent research, 30 per cent teaching, and just under 30 per cent consultancy," he said.

But this is a balance that will have to change in light of the "major threats" to government spending, and the fact that research funding will become even harder to secure.

As a result, he said, the institute will need to do "some pretty hard-nosed things", such as expanding its consultancy work.

Browne may bring opportunities

But Professor Husbands maintained that the Browne Review has also opened up opportunities, such as the scope to develop new forms of undergraduate provision.

One big agenda, which takes advantage of the IoE's broad education expertise, is how to reach those who are not involved in formal education at all.

Professor Husbands argued that most universities still operate an "outreach" model that has much in common with practices of the 19th and early 20th century.

Then, "professors from the university climbed into the trolleybus and went off to give lectures in working men's clubs. In the 21st century, they get put on YouTube.

"The real challenge is finding ways of engaging with people who are not engaging with what universities have to offer," he said.

One example is climate change. While the science is "pretty clear", he said, education is needed to change the general public's behaviour.

A current project that Professor Husbands thinks is "lovely" involves giving mobile devices to Masai herdsmen to help them monitor disease and environmental change. The institute's London Knowledge Lab is exploring how, in such situations, people can be helped to learn how to use such technology.

Of the future of the IoE, Professor Husbands said: "Although there are really big challenges for the institute, we are very strongly positioned.

"We understand our niche, the purpose we exist to fulfil, and it speaks very powerfully to some of the really big issues that society faces in the 21st century."

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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