Student teacher numbers are increasing rapidly in Scotland as the Scottish Executive funds extra places to meet its commitment to reduce class sizes. But school placements form a weak point in the training system. Initiatives aimed at solving the problem are beginning to bear fruit in Highland.
"Until now the authorities have had no locus in the placing of students for work experience," says Moira McCarrell, Highland's education development officer. "It has always been done by direct links between universities and schools.
"We have over 180 primary schools but most people don't know about them.
"If you're a lecturer in an education department and you know three headteachers, those are the folk you hit all the time.
"So, all over Scotland it has been the same schools taking students year after year. Lots of others are willing but are never asked."
The Executive's solution has been to fund student placement co-ordinators within education authorities. "In Highland that's me," says Ms McCarrell.
The purpose is to co-ordinate the efforts of universities and schools, ensuring a more even spread of student teachers.
"I find out which schools are willing to take student teachers and when, then feed that back to the universities. They contact the schools and make the placements, keeping us informed."
Student placement co-ordinators were created in the wake of the first stage review of initial teacher education. The report, published in June 2001, identified the "most important strategic objective" as strengthening partnership working between schools, authorities and universities. Last July, the Executive advised local authorities that they would provide funding for co-ordinators and 32 are now in place.
The system is taking a little time to bed down, says Ms McCarrell. "It is a new way of working. The universities are all committed to it, but established practice takes time to change at the level of the individual.
We are getting there."
By the end of June, Ms McCarrell will know how many Highland schools are willing to take student teachers and the universities will know how many placements they need in the coming session. "I anticipate that all 29 of Highland's secondary schools will say 'Yes', and fully 25 per cent of our primaries."
Funding to schools that regularly provide student placements is an important issue, says Ms McCarrell. (It was mentioned in the first stage review of initial teacher education and considered in more detail in the second.) "It is a lot of work for schools, and the current system relies entirely on goodwill. A great deal of mentoring is needed when schools take on a student and, unlike the probationer system, there is no financial allowance for this.
"We need to be doing all we can to support schools to take on the increase in student numbers."
While schools known to be willing to take students are beginning to feel the strain, many others would welcome an opportunity that never comes their way.
Of the Scottish universities providing teacher education - Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Paisley, Strathclyde and Stirling - most are clustered in the central belt. To reduce costs and simplify organisation, all tend to place student teachers in schools near by. As a result, authorities such as Highland get relatively few placements, which does nothing to ease the problem of recruitment to rural regions.
Student teachers get little chance to experience the charms of a rural community, while potential teachers living in distant areas are deterred by the need to move from home to qualify.
"So, a couple of years ago, we came up with the idea of Grow Your Own Students," says Ms McCarrell. This is a two-year, part-time distance learning course piloted by Aberdeen University and Highland. Its first cohort of primary graduates is about to complete it. Of the 26 who embarked on the course, 24 are expected to finish next month. Secondary courses will be launched in the autumn.
But while distance learning lets student teachers live at home, placements remain a potential problem. Aberdeen University is one of the closest to Highland, but the region is huge. Portree High, for instance, is over 200 miles away. The penalty in cost and time to a university to send tutors long distances to assess student teachers is one of the main reasons nearby schools become overburdened.
"Our solution was to recruit a group of Highland tutors - practising teachers from around the authority - to provide local support and assessment to students," says Ms McCarrell.
Duncan Mackay is one of 10 such tutors. He is headteacher of Craighill Primary in Tain, and a former lecturer at Northern College in Aberdeen. He is also the lead associate tutor, seconded one day a week to the task.
"I was on the committee looking at alternative routes into teaching to tackle our teacher shortage. We knew that a lot of people were qualified to do the PGCE but did not want to live on campus for the best part of a year.
So we came up with this part-time model, which is exactly the same as the campus course but delivered over two years, with the bulk of it done online."
There were concerns about how well this radically different model might work, says Mr Mackay. "There was the notion that student teachers could be working away on their own in front of a PC in some little Highland glen."
To counter this isolation, several teaching days were built into the course, including an initial two weeks on campus in Aberdeen.
"They joined up with the full-time student teachers for an induction to the course. During that time we encouraged them to form study buddies, self-support groups that would meet regularly," he explains.
Before each school experience, student teachers also had network days, in which they met with tutors in Dingwall and looked at the theory and practice of education, says Mr Mackay, "particularly in expressive arts, which don't lend themselves so well to online teaching."
Most of the student teachers found the course demanding, especially at first. Concerns expressed to tutors at network days, or by phone or email, were relayed to the university, which has monitored the progress of every student by tracking their time spent online and contacted them if this suggested someone was in difficulties.
Many of the tutors, including Mr Mackay, will continue to be involved when the new cohort of student teachers starts.
"It is excellent CPD," he says, "and keeps us in touch with developments over a range of educational issues, and with colleagues in schools and universities."
For Highland's director of education, Bruce Robertson, this buy-in from the teaching profession is one of the key aspects of the course. "We have teachers and headteachers working as associate tutors, so the schools see their own people putting their own standards on the course," he says.
"That is not just relevant to rural areas. It is important that the profession as a whole recognises that it's our responsibility, as much as the universities' or the Executive's, to address the shortage in teacher numbers."
While the nature of the new course helps to retain valuable graduates in their communities, it also provides a unique opportunity to classroom assistants, auxiliaries and early years workers across Scotland who would like to qualify as teachers while continuing in employment, he says.
"There should be a natural route into teaching for these people, whether they work in an urban or a rural environment. This course gives them that.
"The demand has been overwhelming."