Why I Teach Education Studies

Stephen Ward is Emeritus Professor of Education, Bath Spa University, formerly Dean of the School of...

Or more precisely why I used to teach Education Studies. I retired from Bath Spa University five years ago but am still an active member of BESA and can’t stop thinking and writing about Education Studies as a university subject. I want here to reflect on where we came from as a subject, and to start a conversation about where we are now, and what the future might hold for us.

In 1998 at Bath Spa we wrote our first Education Studies degree course. It was exciting for us to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and to decide what a university degree in Education should include. Most of us had been teaching the BEd degree with QTS so it was quite a shift to move from teacher training to the purely academic. Our reason for starting up Education Studies was to diversify from the constraints of government-directed teacher training.  Some of us had come into teacher education in the 1980s when the BEd course was still under the aegis of university academics. We were training future teachers for the profession, but that included strong theoretical elements in Psychology, Sociology, Philosophy and the History of Education. Crook (2002) gives an interesting account of how the contributory disciplines came into the BEd degrees in the 1960s.

The late 1980s brought the first attempt by the government to take control of teacher training with the Council for National Academic Awards (CATE), a DES body that scrutinized and approved each university training course. It was followed in the 1990s by a more thorough seizure of control through the Teacher Training Agency (TTA) (HMG, 1998) which set out the detailed list of Teaching Standards (criteria) which all courses should meet. The standards made little or no reference to any theoretical perspectives; indeed they were designed to remove ‘irrelevant theory’ from teacher training, and ultimately to remove universities from the teacher training world (Barton et al. (2004).

In a pincer movement on the universities an Ofsted framework was employed to inspect courses which, if found to be ‘non-compliant with the Secretary of State’s standards’ would be closed down. In 1997 we were subject to one of the first Ofsted inspections on our small PGCE primary course and it was found to be ‘non-compliant’. We realised that if this happened to the BEd course with its 600 students it could be a financial disaster for us. So we moved quickly to implement Education Studies as an alternative source of funding by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

Non-teacher training Education Studies would give us some financial security, but even more it would provide students with a proper degree course with critical academic theory. The TTA-controlled BEd had become four years of ‘the National Curriculum and how to teach it’, with no analysis or critique: a singular vision of education. Education Studies would also allow staff to continue to develop their academic lives with reading and research. Over the 1990s we had become increasingly threatened and constrained by the TTA and its operatives: summoned to meetings in London we were told by its Director of Teacher Training, Frankie Sulke, that they were determined to get rid of universities and their Marxist perspectives from teacher training.

With these experiences behind us it took some time with that blank sheet of paper to be able to really think through what was possible. “There’ll have to be a maths module!”  Well, no, there won’t need to be a maths module because this isn’t preparing students to be teachers: it’s the study of education as a subject in itself. All sorts of exciting things were allowed, and so many interesting topics emerged from different staff who could teach modules on international education, world studies, radical education, policy critique, education for the future. We could give students a whole new vision of the possibilities of education for a changing world.

At that time Education Studies was being developed by colleagues in different universities up and down the country.  It’s now a fully-fledged university subject, proving to be a popular choice for students. But then it seemed almost impossible that we would be allowed to be a proper subject, like others in the university, with no standards and no inspections. We felt to be something of a subversive movement and there were paranoid notions: would the Secretary of State find out that we were teaching this stuff?  We’d better keep our heads down. It was then that some of us thought it would be a good idea to give the movement an identity and a name, and so BESA was born.

My suggestion is that because of these origins we have tended as a subject to be rather modest and content to take a lower profile than our sister teacher-training courses. And perhaps our view of educational theory – the epistemological basis for the subject – has been rather diverse and opaque. In 2003 I carried out a small-scale research project interviewing academic leaders of the newly developed Education Studies courses. I found that colleagues were often unclear about the theoretical basis, sometimes saying that they were ‘pragmatically’ derived from what existing staff could actually teach. There was often a reluctance to refer to the foundation disciplines of Psychology, Sociology and Philosophy, as though there was some anxiety that students would find them too difficult, or that they would still be seen as ‘over-theoretical’. The strongest and universal claim about Education Studies was that “it’s not teacher training”, and that it gives students critique. At the time, Education Studies was trying to find its place in the university curriculum and some colleagues were anxious to assert that it is its own subject, not just an amalgam of other disciplines.

I want to suggest a few questions and invite responses to what Education Studies is now, and how it might develop.

  • What should be the relationship of Education Studies to teacher education?
  • Is it a subject in its own right and what should be its relations to the disciplines of Psychology Sociology, Philosophy and History?
  • Are there any further theoretical disciplines which Education Studies should draw upon, such as economics and politics?
  • How explicit should the disciplines be within the subject?
  • What is the future for Education Studies?
  • Why is it so popular, and will it continue to be so? What are its competitors in the university subject market?


Barton, L., Barrett, E., Whitty, W. Mles, S. and Furlong, J. (1994) Teacher Education and Teacher Professionalism in England: some emerging issues. British Journal of the Sociology of Education. 15,4, pp. 529-543.


Crook, D. (2002) Education studies and teacher education. British Journal of Education Studies, Vol 50 No 1, March 2002, pp 55-75.


Her Majesty’s Government (1998) Teachers: meeting the challenge of change (1998 Green Paper). London: HMSO.


Stephen Ward, Emeritus Professor of Education, Bath Spa University