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Papering over the training cracks

The consultation paper earlier this year on how initial teacher education might be revised is frankly disappointing. The paper contains little if anything that is new and while it correctly stresses the need for partnership between the teacher-education institutions and the schools,it fails to take into account the fact that in the past the tutor's expectations and demands on a student did not always coincide with the teacher's forward plans.

Virtually no mention is made of training students to cope with children who have special needs. The consultation paper merely lists it as an option along with 10 other topics, at least one of which must be chosen as an "element of specialist study" by pre-service students.

Certainly, an in-depth study of this very important area of education might stand as an optional module for those who have an interest in it - both at pre-service and in-service level. But it is vital - particularly in view of the present emphasis on integration and inclusive education - that all pre-service teachers should know something of the problems (cognitive, emotional, physical or sensory) that they are bound to encounter as soon as they start teaching in mainstream schools.

A teacher at the start of hisher career may be faced with a pupil with specific learning difficulties in a mixed-ability class or encounter a hyperactive child or be confronted with a pupil having an epileptic fit. Knowledge not only of the nature of the condition but more importantly of what to do - and indeed what not to do - is vital.

There are also specific techniques that can and should be adopted in the case of sensory- impaired children, not all of whom can be readily identified in the first instance. If a partially sighted child is to be successfully integrated in a mainstream class, not only is there a wealth of technological support with which the class teacher should be familiar but she should have practical knowledge relating to the organisation of the classroom, the preparation of materials, social relationships in the classroom and the efficient use of auxiliaries.

A second issue which the review could have addressed is the possibility of extending into Scotland those teacher-training courses provided by the Open University elsewhere in the UK. Under European legislation, anyone trained by this means in England is eligible to apply for a teaching post in Scotland. Yet the opportunity for Scottish students is not an option unless they live very close to the border and can attend courses in the north of England.

Furthermore, while the OU takes pride in the fact that it is an equal opportunities institution, it is being denied the opportunity to practise this as fully as it might due to the intransigence and parochialism of the people in charge of teacher education in Scotland.

It is worth noting also in this connection that, although the Open University offers a very high standard postgraduate advanced diploma in special needs in education, this is not regarded as a teaching qualification in special education in Scotland, as it is in England. Surely it would make more sense if some agreement could be reached whereby the theoretical component of this qualification were taught and assessed by OU staff and the assessment of practical teaching skills by staff in the Scottish colleges?

Alternatively, the OU advanced diploma could be accepted as another route by which this qualification might be obtained, with OU staff themselves carrying out all the assessment. People in island communities and other remote regions of Scotland would be given a greater opportunity to undertake a course of teacher training, whether at the pre-service or the in-service level. Many of them are unable to do this under the present system because of family commitments, to say nothing of the cost in travel and accommodation.

A third issue relates to course content. When I started teaching in a college of education in the 1970s, a substantial part of the educational psychology course dealt with child development. Gradually, however, the number of hours devoted was reduced until all that remained was a tiny component which could be directly related to the work that went on in the classroom. Since teachers spend the majority of their lives working with young people from childhood to adolescence, talking about them and thinking about them, and since there is already a welcome move towards removing or "softening" the fairly rigid and artificial barrier between primary and secondary education, it makes sound sense that students should be made aware of the ways children develop, the different patterns of development and the problems that may arise.

Far from advocating such an approach, however, the guidelines seem to endorse the present practice. While I do not wish to appear yearning for the good old days, I do feel that child development should form an important part of any pre-service course for teacher training. It should stand alone, as a discipline in its own right, though it goes without saying that, where possible, this should be directly related to the work that goes on in the classroom.

The overall aim, however, should be to provide a deeper understanding of what makes children behave and act in the way they do - both inside and outside the classroom.

Jim Towers was a lecturer in education in Craigie College of Education and Northern College and deputy chairman of Grampian region education committee. He is currently an assistant spokesperson on education for the SNP and an associate lecturer with the Open University. The views expressed here are personal.

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