Priya Dutta: Teacher trainers are only interested in social engineering

I embarked on my PGCE course in Primary Education full of hope, eager to step into a classroom to teach. I had chosen my institution carefully and I was delighted to be accepted onto a course at one of London's most prestigious institutions.

Once the course was underway I was surprised by how little emphasis was placed on actual subject content: short of a few exercises in science, arithmetic and basic English, there was little else to ensure that prospective teachers could actually transmit a body of knowledge. The main emphasis of the course was to assimilate the tenets of progressive theory that have been the intellectual backbone of the teaching profession since the 1960s.

While this is an important aspect of becoming a teacher – heaven forbid that teachers should be ignorant of pedagogic theory – it seemed more important to master a new pseudo-scientific lexicon than to get to grips with what I must actually teach to children. It is commendable that teacher training has undergone changes to increase professionalism and accountability. Unfortunately, this seems to be at the expense of a multiplicity of voices within the profession: those who do not agree with the prevailing discourse find themselves marginalised, often seeking employment in the independent sector or abandoning teaching altogether.

Having benefited from the pedagogic approaches of independent education, I was interested to see how such approaches could be used in the state sector to improve pupil progress. Sadly, my own traditional, academic background was seen as both 'elitist' and 'reactionary' – the assumption being that traditional methods were far too boring for children and that we should 'enlighten' ourselves with the newer approaches to teaching.

I was meant to be a facilitator for children, providing them with a rich learning environment in which they would, as if by osmosis, absorb the contents of the syllabus. I must move away from the outdated notion of a teacher standing at the front of a class to tell children things. Instead, I should ask them for the answers. I am not criticising the Socratic method of teaching. I am, however, questioning the validity of allowing a class of 9-year-olds, with far less knowledge than me, to set the agenda of the class.

On a positive note, I learned a few techniques for classroom management – but this was during my teaching placement, observing a very experienced teacher. Indeed, the most rewarding parts of my teacher training were the periods of on-the-job training during my school placements. However, my time at my placement school was an an eye-opening and dispiriting one. I was shocked by several observations in the classroom.

Trainee teachers are told that they should divide classes into groups rather than use whole class teaching. This can result in classroom chaos as children sit in clusters facing each other rather than facing the teacher. My school mentor, having had years of experience, laid out her desks in rows for certain subjects such as English, but I was told that I had to have my desks arranged in groups so that I could demonstrate my group-teaching skills to my college tutor when being observed. There was a tacit understanding that, although more traditional approaches may be more effective, ideological dogma prevents such approaches from being used. This is clearly damaging for pupils.

I spent an inordinate amount of time preparing 'differentiated lessons' – essentially, different work for different groups of children of high, average and low ability for every single lesson. However, this tended to lead to fractured sessions in which attention became most focused on the average to least able.

The idea that work should be challenging and intellectually demanding was alien. Tragically, the brightest students suffered most of all. They were not stretched and were, instead, meant to act as 'assistants', imparting their knowledge to weaker pupils and in turn ‘benefiting’ from the perspectives of others. What actually happened was that these bright and enthusiastic children did all the work, but not for their own intellectual development.

I was also shocked by how little emphasis there was on diagnostic marking and on writing relevant comments on children’s work. The use of red ink, in particular, was frowned upon, even though it made it far easier for children to see and read comments and marks. In particular, we were dissuaded from pointing out errors in a child’s work since it was seen as discouraging.

A culture of mediocrity was pervasive – and it started in the staffroom! In my experience of four primary schools before becoming a teacher myself, I was the only Oxbridge graduate, either as a trainee teacher or as a teacher. I was treated with disdain and suspicion. The hostility and inverse snobbery towards me was one of my most enduring memories of teacher training. If teachers are unable to applaud the accomplishments of their colleagues, what hope is there for their pupils? Why should top graduates be discouraged from teaching the younger age group?

Another abiding impression of my teacher training was that of being encouraged, even required, to be too permissive of pupils' transgressions. I was left asking myself why we wring our hands at the production of so many 'feral' teenagers who lack the basic skills to progress in life when schools are, so often, causing the problem rather than solving it.

I seemed ‘off message’ among fellow trainee teachers in holding with the traditional idea that rigour and discipline must be introduced at a young age, else the skills required to succeed, such as tenacity and concentration, are too difficult to attain later on.

Too often, teacher trainers appeared to see trainees, like myself, as conduits for an ideology that mistakenly supposes the classroom is a vehicle for remedying all the ills of society.

Priya Dutta is Secretary of the Campaign for Real Education and used to be a full-time teacher and Deputy Head of an independent school in north London before setting up her own consultancy this year.

(Image: luminici)

Priya Dutta

  • Alan Llandrindod Wells

    Total overall required.
    Will not happen.,
    The Lefty’s have won.
    The Conservative party in Westminster is dominated by Blairites.
    Game over.

    • Little Black Censored

      “Total overall required.”
      In the art room.

  • It’s all just a race to the bottom with state schools – they hate anyone who is of above average intelligence.

    • And then moan that too many pupils from Independent schools are admitted to the best universities!

  • Teachers should be taught as apprentices in classrooms by experienced teachers who have proven results. This was what was done in Victorian times when working class education made enormous advances with the result that the literacy rate in the early 1900s was probably better than it is today.
    My grandson was a victim of modern teaching. At seven he fidgeted in class, paid little attention and the teacher thought he had ADHD and that my daughter should seek advice. Nothing of the sort, as was discovered when he was sent to an independent school, he was simply bored to death. From having no interest in books and reading, he’s now proud of his reading, way ahead of his year group. A totally different approach by the teacher who obviously avoided getting indoctrinated and believes children should be pushed.
    Of course, an independent school has to provide what parents want, not what the ‘blob’ thinks they should have.

  • Bik Byro

    “Tragically, the brightest students suffered most of all. They were not stretched”

    Whilst it is good to nurture the less intelligent members of the class, Britain needs to wake up to the fact that we really do need to give resource and encouragement to the brightest children : after all, they will be the next generation of scientists, engineers, doctors and surgeons which will help us retain our place in the world.

    • It seems that Britain is prepared to become a second class nation when it comes to engineering, technology and innovation. From being the country that built railways world wide, from being pioneers in nuclear generated electricity, we now have to rely on others to build them for us.

    • martianonlooker

      How true. What puzzles me is that this deterioration in standards and general dumbing down is across near enough every part of society. We have failing educational standards; we have reduced university entrance standards; we have reduced job level proficiencies in e.g. the police ‘service’; we have the same in the Civil Service; we have enforced dogma e.g. males can be females and vice versa; we have a 1984 drive for political thought in the EU being wonderful; we have the great celebration of diversity (even though some cultures despise us).
      I would like to know: who, what, why and how it is being orchestrated.

  • James Chilton

    The fundamental purpose of a PGCE course appears to be indoctrination in “progressive educational principles” rather than practical instruction, for trainee teachers, in managing children and transmitting knowledge in the classroom.

    Graduates who wanted a career in teaching used to be hired without further qualifications. They “learned on the job”, so to speak.

  • Anthony

    “The idea that work should be challenging and intellectually demanding was alien. Tragically, the brightest students suffered most of all. They were not stretched and were, instead, meant to act as ‘assistants’, imparting their knowledge to weaker pupils and in turn ‘benefiting’ from the perspectives of others. What actually happened was that these bright and enthusiastic children did all the work, but not for their own intellectual development.”

    This sounds disturbingly like socialism. If you insist that the brightest and most able (only in that position because of the birth-lottery of genes, of course) have to redirect all their time, energy, and resources to the less able, then the most able have little or no incentive nor time to improve their own ability; and the less able learn that they do not have to do any work at all. You end up not with the more able and the less able, nor even the equally able, but the unable.

    This is educational socialism, the “everybody must get a prize” egalitarian nonsense Melanie Philips warned against. Failed ideologies should be completely absent from the classroom.

    I have frequent conversations about modern methods of teaching with my mother (an assistant in a primary school). Nowadays apparently you aren’t allowed to correct a student’s spelling mistakes too often, lest it put them off. Pointing out mistakes is thus almost forbidden. Modern teaching method books also advise against good old-fashioned rigour and discipline.

    No wonder things are going downhill.