Daunting challenges for teacher training

As Gordon Kirk retires as dean of education at Edinburgh University, he looks back over past upheavals in teacher training and outlines an agenda for the future

THE past two decades have seen a transformation in the structure and quality of teacher education in Scotland.

In 1981 we had a seven-college system, following closures of and a merger. Within five years, and following even more intense political trauma, the seven colleges became five.

The shrinkage of the system, matched the fall in school population. Colleges were vulnerable, at the mercy of declining demand. Unlike their counterparts south of the border, they were denied opportunities to diversify and had to cut staff substantially. They were micro-managed by the then Scottish Education Department to the extent that every appointment required written approval. They were also obliged to devote too much time to securing their survival.

Ironically, that period of retrenchment was also a period of significant academic development. In 1981 only a tiny minority of students were on a degree programme, the old BEd. However, in 1983 the Secretary of State intimated that the long-awaited four-year degree for primary teachers would replace the three-year diploma.

The creation of an all-graduate profession and the introduction of national guidelines for courses committed the colleges throughout the 1980s to a massive programme of course development.

Colleges also restructured one-year postgraduate courses and massively extended in-service provision, partly through a range of postgraduate awards, including Master's degrees, and partly by allocating some 200 staff to supporting school-based training relating to Standard grade, special needs, pupil support, and other areas.

These two factors - financial vulnerability and academic development - made it reasonable, once universities became the responsibility of Scottish ministers in 1992, for colleges to embark on the next phase of development, incorporation within universities, normally as faculties of education.

Through these mergers, colleges acquired a greater degree of institutional security as integral parts of much larger organisations. It also made sense to combine former university departments of education, which specialised in research and higher degrees but had no involvement in teacher education, with education college staff, to create concentrations of expertise.

In future, teacher education faces a daunting agenda. First, institutions must seek a solution to the partnership problem. While teacher education benefits enormously from the commitment, well beyond the call of duty, of thousands of Scottish teachers, our partnership arrangements lag well behind mentoring and internship schemes south of the border, and in North America and Australia. It was disappointing that the mentoring project, with its many attractive features, should fail.

The subsequent Deloitte and Touche report on the costs of partnership was quietly shelved. Currently, discussions are taking place on teacher development partnerships and it is hoped that initiative will settle the resources question that has bedevilled partnership for too long.

Second, action is needed to reform the quality assurance process. Collaborative review was devised as a streamlined alternative to multiple levels of external scrutiny and was piloted in two institutions this year. However, the GTC has expressed reservations and these may kill off what seemed a promising initiative.

Finally, the forthcoming review of initial teacher training should lead to much needed flexibility through, for example, qualifications that straddle the primarysecondary and FEupper secondary divides; more part-time opportunities; and greater use of e-learning, which may help with partnership difficulties.

No doubt other challenges will present themselves. However, the future of Scottish teacher education institutions now seems secure. They are staffed by capable, committed people. I wish them well.

Professor Gordon Kirk is now a vice-principal of Edinburgh University.

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