Lecturers’ skills not up to scratch, says Eton head

Tony Little points to ‘increasing gap’ between teaching standards at sixth form and university

July 9, 2015
Tony Little, Eton College headmaster, 2007
Source: Getty
Little voice: outgoing head spoke of a ‘gulf’ between schools and universities

The outgoing headmaster of one of the UK’s most prestigious private schools has lamented university teaching standards, suggesting that lecturers would benefit from spending time in the secondary classroom.

Tony Little, who steps down from Eton College this summer after 13 years, told Times Higher Education that there was a “gulf” between the experience of students in the final years of school and the first year of university “that should be bridged and we have failed to do it”.

“I have students coming back saying that, in some cases, the quality of teaching in the sixth form was better than anything at university,” Mr Little said. “It is not right.”

The gap in teaching standards between sixth forms – in both the state and independent sectors – and university was increasing, Mr Little suggested, because of the “huge emphasis” on pedagogy at school level in recent years.

Moves to make A-level exams “more accessible” by reducing the essay-based content had also widened the divide between secondary and higher education, Mr Little said, since this remained a primary method of assessment at university.

He acknowledged that some institutions, such as the University of Reading and Brunel University London, had already invested heavily in first-year teaching standards.

But he argued that there was a long way to go across the sector as a whole. “There is some outstanding stuff going on with the younger generation of teachers and I don’t see this replicated in any way at university level,” Mr Little said.

The intervention came after Jo Johnson, the universities minister, identified higher education teaching standards as his foremost priority. Plans for a teaching excellence framework will be announced later this year.

Mr Little, a graduate of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, suggested that giving teaching greater recognition would help to drive up standards. “The business of developing a career within a university is predicated on your ability to produce good research,” he said.

“The business of being a teacher is way down the list of priorities. It is not traditionally perceived to be important, people aren’t trained in it, and no credit is given to teaching.”

Mr Little also argued that more was needed for there to be a “really effective conversation” about teaching between schools and universities.

He said that he would require lecturers who were responsible for first-year teaching to “spend some time in good schools, talking to departments, seeing what a teacher does”.

“That would be beneficial, and it would be beneficial for teachers to have a better sense of what a university lecturer does,” he added.

With fees of £34,434 a year and a record of securing places at leading universities for its students, Eton has long been a target for social mobility campaigners.

Mr Little, who is joining a Dubai-based chain of independent schools, highlighted Eton’s £6 million annual spend on bursaries and its partnerships with state schools in Slough and East London, which have helped to widen university participation.

He said that this success was probably “related” to the fact that as many as 97 per cent of the pupils involved were from ethnic minorities. “If you go to parts of rural England, the level of aspiration is much more limited and that is our battleground.”

Mr Little was speaking ahead of the publication next week of his book, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education.


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Reader's comments (8)

It is ironic indeed that the head of the most elitist educational institute in the UK, one that is supported by exceptionally ample private funding, chooses to deliver a sweeping attack on a university sector that is struggling to survive on substantially smaller - and continually shrinking - teaching-related funding. From the perspective of someone who has been teaching first-year undergraduate students over the last decade, many of whom have been taught at the very same private schools that Mr Little represents, it is clear that students' abilities to engage in critical thinking and actively take charge of their learning has dramatically 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, at least not within the short span of a UK undergraduate degree. If this is the result of the so-called "pedagogy emphasis" that Mr 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 Mr Little indeed cared about access and educational standards in this country, he should rather focus on the rapidly falling standards of secondary education and the massive inequalities in education provision that can only be addressed by a wholesale redistribution of funds from the private school sector to state schools. Case in point: the UK has one of the highest proportions of students taught in private schools in the world, yet the country performs at best average in international comparisons, being outperformed by numerous countries with far more egalitarian education systems (such as Finland).
As a Governor of a state selective school, I was delighted to see it was the Head of Eton who had said all this, because I knew straight away he had something that needed saying, but would have to be very strong to withstand a virulent counter attack. This is disappointing as I share many of his concerns based on my own observation and experience. The learning needs of the children we teach in the UK, set in the society they come from, are changing rapidly and the HE sector should listen, aim to work harder with the state and private sector schools in equal measure and be prepared to draw on best practice wherever it is found., Sometimes a little more humility and a willingness to share would help to address genuine weaknesses in teaching standards in schools and universities . The quality is so variable - from my own recent experience of open days and offer days, where one might expect universities to put on their best face, the standard varied vastly between subjects and between universities. At some, the skill of the 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 and at one I was under the clear impression that updating had meant converting an old chalk on blackboard presentation, via overhead projector slides into powerpoint without any thought for the audience - so lamentable was the standard. A real turn off at a time when a critical decision must be made. Another had used data that was so dated to prove an otherwise excellent point about a contemporary issue, that I knew if I had done the same thing in my day job as a lecturer with students on custom programmes at a business school, the feedback would have been instant, savage and brutal and that would have been my last outing with the client. State schools like mine have great teachers and they have raised their game in recent years to respond to the rising expectations and challenge of very bright, very able children. We also get a very good look at the trends particularly in the use of learning technology, the way future students prefer to learn and the way they access learning resources in a socially networked age. If teachers of sixth forms in schools and teachers in universities listen more closely to each other, the more we will learn together, and the more we will achieve for our students. The prize for us all is to perform the difficult job of teaching with even greater excellence and integrity.
J L is, in my experience, right on the money. I have no doubt that students prefer the more personal educational style possible at school to that typical at university level and when asked are happy to say that they prefer it. Problem is, as JL hints, the pedagogical style doesn't encourage useful, applicable knowledge/skill acquisition and students come to university today unable to think critically, learn independently and show evidence of proper understanding. It's utterly unsurprising - you could try and 'teach' someone to (for example) play the piano by giving them lots of personal attention and cuddles and they would probably be happy to say that the quality of teaching was great. However, at the end of the day if you're going to play anything on the piano you're going to have to sit down and practice on your own, a lot. No one can do it for you. You going to have to take responsibility for your learning or you're going to learn Jack. At university we have to assume that students can do this, but the fact of the matter is that they've been so molly-coddled by the 'excellent teaching' they've had at school, that they can't do anything on their own- they don't know how, they don't understand what understanding is, they've been corrupted beyond our capacity to correct. Stop this pedagogical nonsense now before it's too late . . . . . oh wait, it's already too late.
A governor (any teaching experience?) of a relatively privileged selective state school - and as such probably has little experience of "average" students - backs the head of an ultra privileged school. If there is a serious problem with our education system, this is where it lies. As my two fellow university teachers point out, schools/colleges are not doing such a great job in preparing kids for higher education. However, this may well be as much a cultural issue as one of teaching. Either way, heads of wealthy public schools are unlikely to have any great insight into the work of HE teachers, and so it proves with Mr Little. Still, a good plug for his book.
I rewrote the article for you to make it more succinct - Headline: 'Man with book to publicise makes controversial comment' Body Text: Head of educational establishment that charges £34,434 per year says that other educational establishments charging £9,000 per year don't offer the same level of service. 'Little man' expresses surprise that pupils expected to grow up and be adults, taking responsibility for their own learning when they go to university. Quote: "What is the point of having paid servants if one has to do one's own work?"
Mr little there is some 'outstanding stuff' going on with the younger generation of academics too. Many UK Universities are offering robust, accredited (HE Academy) training for PhD students who teach. These talented, motivated individuals are engaged in cutting edge research, have a sense of service, public engagement and impact and they are wholeheartedy committed to supporting undergraduates learn. They also love their subject. Whether a TEF will recognise the valuable contribution they make remains to be seen. Karen is writing in a personal capacity.
While I respect Mr. Little's contribution to education in the UK, this is a load of nonsense. 1.) University lecturers receive significant teacher training from their supervisors, but this training is individualized rather than standardized. In addition, at most universities, further training via the PGCHE is mandatory. Also, most departments run a mentoring programme for new teachers. 2.) Significant credit _is_ given for good teaching, though it, alone, is not sufficient for promotion. Nor should it be, at research universities (that's what makes them research universities). 3.) Good teaching has always been considered a vital aspect of the profession, so Mr. Little's statement to the contrary is flat-out wrong. My colleagues spend far more time discussing teaching and developing best practices than they do discussing research. Generally, very few do anything significant in the latter during term-time. As a whole, Mr. Little demonstrates a profound ignorance about the nature of teaching at the university level. His expectations are entirely unrealistic, and his criticisms of university teaching unfair. Perhaps if he had been forced to balance the immense workload of research, teaching, administration and pastoral care daily required of even the most junior lecturers at research universities, he would speak with more knowledge and less vitriol.
Being a "student" at school is not the same as being a "student" at university; university students are legally adults, for a start. But the now seemingly dated approach of making the change from being a pupil to being a student meant that you were growing up in some way, and people seemed to grow in to the new role of being a student. I wonder if now, the expectation is that university is simply an extension of school, since the people attending are still referred to as students, and therefore the learner's role is perceived as being the same?

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