Teachers should have university degrees

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There is an interesting debate raging in the U.K. after the government proposed a wholly vocational route into teaching. Although it is intended to be a ‘degree equivalent’, trainee teachers would not graduate from university in the traditional way and would instead learn on the job. The initial reaction from many teachers on Twitter was that this would deprofessionalise teaching and suspicions were raised that it is intended as a cheap solution to the problem of teacher supply. Under current arrangements apprentices may be paid as little as £3.50 per hour, which is far less than paying for proper teachers. Schools that are struggling to manage their budgets might find this attractive.

Others then weighed-in to the discussion, sensing hypocrisy. Backing the government, Sean Harford of the English schools’ inspectorate, Ofsted, accused teachers of preaching the equivalence of vocational and academic routes yet not wanting it for their own profession.

I think this term ‘equivalence’ is a problem here. I don’t see much value in vocational courses prior to the end of formal schooling, and this is as someone involved in attempting to set-up such courses in a previous role. They are a poor alternative to basic academic learning. The theory is that students will be so motivated by hairdressing or vehicle maintenance that this will push them through the contextualised key skills courses in English and maths that they complete on the side; the stuff that they really need. But it doesn’t work like that. Kids need the basics first and the best way to learn this is not as an afterthought in a complex context.

I recently tweeted about the fact that Germany has improved in PISA over the last 17 years whereas Finland has declined. Dylan Wiliam then linked to a blog post explaining the changes that Germany has made in that time. One of these has been a move away from sorting kids at the age of ten into vocational and academic streams.

Perhaps for some students, the school system and their personal circumstances have failed them and they would be better off starting work or training as a traditional apprentice. But this is not because they are not ‘academic’, it is not an intrinsic property of the student.

After compulsory education has ended, vocational routes make more sense. But are they ‘equivalent’ to academic ones? I have no problem with a parity of esteem; that we hold them in as high regard. Even so, this is manifestly not the case in England where the general public think of degrees as superior. What is absolutely clear is that they are different to academic routes. You learn on the job, focusing on the tasks involved in doing that job. Academic learning does not have the same focus. Instead, it is built around growing and applying discipline knowledge, wherever that leads.

Teachers teach these disciplines, even generalist primary school teachers. And so teachers need an understanding of them. It is therefore essential that they have reached a recognised threshold of academic learning themselves. If anything, we should be pursuing this with greater vigour, not watering it down. I cannot prove that this will make teachers more effective but this is about our values as a society. And by raising the status of teaching we probably will end up with better teachers.

However, I am not making an argument for teaching degrees. I think all teachers, including primary teachers, would be better served by studying an academic subject at university and simply focusing on that for a few years. I can’t point to any studies but I can point to the fact that, just as with those hairdressing students, learning vocational aspects of teaching alongside learning your subject is incoherent. Once students have finished a degree in a subject, there should be a variety of routes open to train as a teacher. I still believe that university-based teacher education courses have the potential to deliver the best mix of theory and practice but I don’t think they do a brilliant job at the moment. That’s why I believe that school-based alternatives, as have already emerged in the U.K., offer an opportunity to improve the whole sector through competition.

The charge of hypocrisy is perhaps valid for those teachers who have spent years preaching the equivalence of vocational and academic routes. I am not one of those teachers. Vocational learning and academic learning are different and nothing good ever comes of trying to pretend that they are the same.

10 thoughts on “Teachers should have university degrees

  1. Well said Greg.

    Of course, it was easier to maintain this distinction some years ago when there really WAS a clear-cut divide between academic and vocational courses, the former being largely the province of the universities and the latter belonging to technical colleges and the like. But since these lines have become blurred over the past few decades, there’s been a sort of cross-infection; academic courses have been overladen with the sort of language that used to be the domain of the technical courses (particularly the emphasis on “outcomes” and the godawful satisfaction questionnaires at the end of each unit, which destroy the sense of long-term trust necessary for proper immersion in an academic discipline), and the vocational courses have put on quasi-academic trappings. I think things like education and nursing have been tangentially affected by the latter phenomenon, which is probably why postgrad (and undergrad) education courses take twice as long as they used to, but trainee teachers emerge from them with all the Right Beliefs about education, but often not with the ability to convey their knowledge properly to students (they’re largely discouraged even from doing this).

  2. Surely people with a passion for and ability in a particular subject are going to *want* to study it at tertiary level? A baffling move by the UK government.

    1. Most would, yes. However, there are always individuals who don’t. Some experts are unqualified and don’t feel the urge to pick up a certificate telling them what they already know.

      I spent my twenties wasting my time training to be a doctor, eventually dropping out after five years. I don’t have any degree-level qualification, and now spend my time writing Latin and Greek textbooks, and teaching private students.

      To teach Latin or Greek in the state sector, I would first need to take a six-year part-time Classics degree before I could begin training as a teacher. Now, I’m sure there is plenty an 18-year-old can learn that is worthwhile from a Classics degree, but as I approach fifty I can’t see that it would be anything more than a huge waste of time I might otherwise be spending writing books.

      I would like to teach in the state sector. It does grate that I only teach the children of the comfortably well-off. But it’s not going to happen if I have to waste six years placing a tick in the correct box.

      1. In your case, it does seem pointless!

        Ideally there would be some sort of acknowledgement of prior learning or certification of expertise that would account for your sort of situation.

        Are there many state schools in the UK that teach Latin? (I’m Australian.) I feel quite jealous, as I would have loved to have learned Latin in my own state education, but it was not on offer. And now I just don’t seem to have the will power to do it on my own!

  3. Interesting to watch some of that esteem issue flying around twitter.
    Academic -> professional -> more worthy.
    Vocational -> Non-professional -> less worthy.

    Two reasons a government might want this. One it increases the supply of teachers faster and at lower cost. The second is it creates a group with less qualifications and therefore less access to other employment.

    I think the correct argument against this is that no one should take the vocational option based on their own self interest and that if people feel they can’t afford an academic route to teaching then affordability of a degree is the issue to campaign for.

    Of course it is also possible that someone read Greg’s blog and decided keeping potential teachers away from academics was going to get better teachers ;<)

  4. “Backing the government, Sean Harford of the English schools’ inspectorate, Ofsted, accused teachers of preaching the equivalence of vocational and academic routes yet not wanting it for their own profession.”

    Whoa – that is drawing a long bow! Sounds like the UK government are getting pretty desperate on the issue of education in general.

    For many children, the teachers that they spend so much time with during their school years are the only adults they are exposed to that are university educated. I think we owe it to those kids to be as well-read and resourceful as we can be.

    1. I think we owe it to those kids to be as well-read and resourceful as we can be.

      True, but “university educated” is only an expensive proxy for that.

      I would argue that if we tested teacher entrants directly, instead of assuming a degree delivers what it is said to deliver, we would find well-read and knowledgeable people without degrees who would make excellent teachers, and university educated folk with little knowledge outside the small field that got them through their degree.

      As is stands we get English teachers with poor grammar, because an English degree doesn’t teach grammar. We get Maths teachers who can’t link their subject to other areas, because their degree was in a tiny subsection of Maths (and often struggle to teach Maths to those who don’t have their natural ability). At our school we have a Science teacher who got C’s in an Environmental Science degree with only the shakiest grasp on Physics and Chemistry.

      I’d rather my children were taught by clever, motivated teachers than dullards who happen to have passed three years of University.

  5. I think the difference you make here between “parity of esteem” and vocational/academic routes being totally equivalent is so important, and something people making bad arguments on this topic may muddy to help make their point!

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