A marriage of strengths

9th October 1998 at 01:00
The direct involvement of universities in training teachers can only be good for the profession, says Stewart Sutherland

TOO OFTEN the relation of school to university takes one of two unsatisfactory forms. The university sees schools as the conveyor belt which delivers the potential student to the moment of choice. Alternatively, the school sees university entry as the ultimate emblem of success whether in some form of national league table or as the basis of self-justification or advertisement to parents.

On this view the UCAS form is the first interrogation at the educational equivalent of Checkpoint Charlie. A forbidding wall divides the east and the west of the educational world and there is little intercourse between the two.

Of course, it is not really like that. But the stark truth is that until quite recently, with the notable exception of Stirling University, the education and training of teachers in Scotland was being distanced from comparable training in other professions which had central place in universities, and restricted to self-standing colleges. This had the effect of reducing the creative university input into school education which professions such as medicine, law, architecture and veterinary medicine have come to expect as the norm.

The profession was well served by the best of Scotland's teacher education colleges, each working as university-free zones, but as the good book tells us, and as the best practice in England and indeed other parts of the world demonstrated, "two are better than one".

That is the essence of the vision which draws together Moray House Institute of Education and Edinburgh University. Of the combined strengths of the two much more will come than either could produce in isolation. At the heart of that, if the vision is fully realised, there will be a recasting of the relationship between school and university.

Of course, the key element of this will be the opportunity to reconsider the support universities can give to schools and to those who teach in them. The primary form of that support must be good training of the mind and pedagogical skills of future teachers. I hope that developing new patterns of combining academic study of specific subjects with the development of the skills appropriate to those subjects in the classroom will be one of our priorities.

But such priorities must be set in the context of what the Government's proposals for lifelong learning mean for the continuing professional and personal development of teachers and headteachers. (And that should be read as a challenge to the Government to enter into discussion with us about that. ) It is critically important that teachers are allowed time and opportunity to upgrade both skills and knowledge. The case for the latter is most obvious in those teaching the sciences, but it has relevance across the whole curriculum. For example, the study of language at Edinburgh has much to contribute to the debate about teaching language in schools, as well as to the practice of that difficult art.

The research in our Human Communication Research Centre has significant potential application to the classroom situation, which could have far-reaching impact on our understanding and practice of the processes of education. The new pattern of educational research funding of which, given the proposed support of the Scottish Office, the Scottish universities could be major beneficiaries, is a natural means of using UK-based funds for the benefit of Scottish schools.

Setting the various elements of teacher education in a multi-faculty university at both undergraduate and continuing professional development levels will be the structure that defines these opportunities, but the achievement of the vision will require the help and support of others - most notably at one level the Government, for the maintenance and raising of standards in schools is achieved primarily through the support of teachers and headteachers rather than through committees and working parties - and essentially through the support of the profession.

This is a time of great change in Scotland and in Scottish education. "Education in the new Scotland" is the theme of a conference for secondary headteachers being organised by the university on November 6 and 7. It will be an opportunity for discussion of the relationship between school and university, as well as issues central to the development of Scotland's educational system and its economic consequences.

The unification of Moray House Institute of Education and Edinburgh demonstrates commitment both to each other and to the future of Scottish schools.

Sir Stewart Sutherland is principal of Edinburgh University.

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