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Mission impossible for McConnell?

The strategy should be more education and more training for more teachers, says Douglas Weir

I sympathise with the First Minister's speech to the North Lanarkshire conference earlier this month and its call to improve access to the teaching profession and to give more pupils access to vocational courses before the age of 16. Neither of these issues is new and many attempts to deal with them have been made in the five decades of my career in education. All those attempts in the past have failed and Mr McConnell will need to have a very sophisticated set of policies if he is to succeed now.

Improving access to teaching must deal with three particular points. A teacher requires academic or subject expertise, curricular expertise and teaching skill. In the Scottish Executive's present regulations the first is acquired through completing a first degree, the second is built up over time but starts during initial teacher education, and the third is also cumulative but teachers must reach an acceptable level after initial teacher education and employment for an induction year in schools. These are the means by which their quality and suitability to be registered are sustained.

It is not clear how far Mr McConnell wishes to go. There is room to loosen the detailed match between degree content and teaching subject. There is room to allow for more of the prerequisites of an effective teacher to be acquired during employment rather than before. There is room for more men in teaching and more representatives of minority communities. So long as none of these changes compromises the quantity and high quality of entrants to teaching in Scotland - the envy of our neighbours - Mr McConnell may have a point. He would, however, be wise to consider whether the problem he identifies is not so much one of increasing the diversity among teachers but more one of increasing the diversity of what is taught and how.

Apparently, Mr McConnell wishes to recruit a different type of teacher in order to ensure that so-called "non-academic" pupils can be given vocational subjects and vocational training between the ages of 14 and 16.

As long ago as the 1960s, the Brunton report led to exactly this form of education. But, such is our inability to plan future workforce demands that schools and colleges were eventually training "Brunton pupils" for jobs which no longer existed or training too many pupils for those few jobs which did exist.

The result of Brunton was that pupils were told that taking vocational courses would lead to employment in the same trade but were frustrated when that did not happen. By then they had dropped other "conventional" subjects which led to further and higher education and had narrowed their career alternatives. That was a national waste of talent, especially for those pupils whose diagnosis at 14 as "non-academic" - that is, only fit for vocational courses - was false.

In the 1970s, we tried the Youth Training Scheme (YTS) as an attempt to cure youth unemployment. YTS had short-term successes, especially in the area of environmental improvement, but government could not afford to sustain those new, but unproductive, forms of employment. And as far as vocational training was concerned, the typical YTS scheme employed craftsmen from trades which were in oversupply to train young people who in time added to that oversupply.

Following YTS, the 1980s and 1990s were the decades of the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI) and its extension. At least TVEI invested in emerging rather than declining occupations, with a heavy emphasis on ICT and employability. What TVEI did not do was challenge the conventional curriculum structures nor could government afford to replace ICT hardware each time technology advanced. Just as the legacy of Brunton was schools with craft workshops for dead crafts, so the legacy of TVEI, until recently, was computer suites with embarrassingly dated hardware.

Of course, there is always room to improve the curriculum. More choice for pupils. More flexibility in delivery. More use of out-of-school learning.

All of these could increase motivation and reduce disruption. If there are lessons from the past 40 years, they are these. Don't make your vocational courses depend on equipment and buildings that you cannot afford to upgrade regularly. Don't tie your vocational courses to specific trades or occupations where there is no way of predicting the demand for labour five years ahead. And don't offer vocational courses in occupations for which you have a good supply of teachers and lecturers, since the only reason these teachers and lecturers are under-employed is that there is no demand for the occupations they train in.

What, then, is the First Minister to do? First, we can all agree that young people must acquire a disposition to work. This requires us to ensure that school education changes so that young people have as wide a range of work-related (but not job-specific) experiences as possible and as much career advice as we can afford.

Second, most of us can agree that young people often get bored at school.

Those with lots of parental support can tolerate that boredom because of the alternative stimuli their families provide. Those with less parental support or a poorer disposition to learning need to have these alternative stimuli provided by the school. In other words, every opportunity must be taken to make learning more active and experiential, less passive and worksheet bound. That means training some (or even many) teachers how to teach experientially, but not necessarily concluding that the subjects they teach are wrong.

Third, we would be helped in modernising learning if Learning and Teaching Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority could establish how core skills such as literacy, numeracy and ICT can be given more status in terms of curricular values and teacher energies. Most employer criticisms of schools are about pupils' lack of such skills which, even more than job-specific courses, are at the centre of an individual's employability.

At least one part of the current curriculum shows what is possible in terms of experiential learning and core skills. Social and vocational skills is used in some schools as the entitlement for all pupils to sharpen their career focus and employability skills. More of the curriculum needs to deliver similar values.

Fourth, subject knowledge is also an essential part of the nation's economic health. Educating teachers to a high level of subject knowledge and keeping their subject knowledge interesting and up to date probably is more powerful in providing motivation and relevance for pupils than the short-term attractiveness of vocational courses for jobs which may have a limited future.

A complex issue requires sophisticated strategies. These depend on more education and more training for more teachers. Those teachers need to have a great deal of up-to-date subject knowledge, a wide range of teaching approaches and an ability to link both of those to work-related skills and employability.

One final, and hopefully, mischievous thought. Why has the Minister for Education set up two working parties, one on teacher education and the other on curriculum, when the First Minister has already decided how to reform both?

Douglas Weir is a professor at Strathclyde University and vice-convener of the General Teaching Council for Scotland.

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