As societies have become less stable in the last quarter of the 20th century, education has become a main target for reform. Blamed for indiscipline, national economic underperformance and reduced social cohesion, schools and their teachers in Britain have attracted sustained criticism, and inevitably, teacher trainers have been thought culpable. In the pursuit of effective teaching skills - highlighted in this week's annual report of the chief inspector of schools - education theory has been much diminished.
In a profession lacking as clear a knowledge-base as engineering or medicine, the balance of theory and practice has long been a focal point. In the 1960s and 1970s, drawing on the "foundation disciplines" of psychology, sociology, history, and philosophy in the training of teachers was felt to help the development of critical judgement and professional adaptability. From the 1980s Government required a major shift towards practical experience to the point where, in 1996, a substantial proportion of training occurs in schools under teacher education "partnerships", and the emphasis is on the acquisition of listed technical "competences".
A feature of this change has been the demonisation of social science and the loss of an equal opportunities perspective. Studies concerned, for example, with ethnicity and social class were part of the teacher education curriculum in the 1960s and 1970s. The former predominated with the influx of non-English speaking children and young people in schools and under-achievement became a concern. Both these features are now very much less in evidence, and ethnic minorities are, for example, now well represented in admissions to higher education.
The second dimension of multicultural teacher education, the education of all children, is arguably of far greater long-term significance. This is to do with preparing children for life in a plural society, whether or not they live in ethnically mixed neighbourhoods. The United Kingdom has been a culturally plural society for centuries - as have most of the world's societies - but this is generally not part of our consciousness.
How far sensitivity to the ethnic dimension in initial training institutions has survived the reduction of theoretical studies, an aspect never universally embedded, is not known. Nor do we know how far the schools in which the students now spend much more time offer any support. It is unlikely to be significant in all-white areas. By the early 1990s, official discouragement of "modish educational theory" was reflected in the Department for Education's Circular (9/92) on secondary teacher training, which made virtually no mention of ethnicity. Circular (14/93) on primary training ignored it completely. Although Northern Ireland teacher trainers make consistent efforts to foster mutual understanding, and the 1995 Office of Standards in Education inspection framework clearly requires an intercultural sensitivity, the UK, once a world leader in teacher education for democratic citizenship, may now be falling behind, placing future school provision at risk.
Meanwhile, European nations such as Sweden and Spain, which have experienced major waves of immigration in recent decades, are beginning to assess the needs in teacher education. The Netherlands is further advanced, although the intercultural permeation of teacher education is some way off. In the plural societies of North America there has been more experimentation, but teacher education programmes generally offer options rather than required core courses, and much the same is true in Australia. Other societies have different needs.
In the turbulent political evolution of the new South Africa, social cohesion is a prized objective, and the celebration of diversity sought elsewhere is less affordable. A similar perspective operates in the highly diverse society of Malaysia, where education is an instrument of national unity. Israel too, is a complex society, with ethnic, religious, migrant and national differences, but with much segregation in schooling and teacher education.
Each of these societies is discussed in a new collection of papers, Teacher Education in Plural Societies. Each has its unique intercultural mosaic and educational dilemmas, and few generalisations are possible - other than perhaps two. First, the pivotal role of teacher education in sustaining minority needs and/or fostering intercultural understanding is plainly apparent everywhere; and second, this has yet to be fully grasped anywhere. At a time when "ethnic cleansing" in several continents has replaced the European holocaust and the tribal animosities of history in our sombre recollections, perhaps we should be reassessing our priorities with greater circumspection.
Maurice Craft is research professor in education at the University of Greenwich, and editor of Teacher Education in Plural Societies, to be published by Falmer Press this week.