Gordon Kirk puts forward three proposals to raise the quality of teacher education
The Scottish Office has produced a bumper bundle of measures in response to Sir Stewart Sutherland's report on teacher education and training, undertaken as part of the Dearing and Garrick inquiries into higher education. Sir Stewart has grounds for satisfaction because the Government has accepted practically all of his recommendations.
While still retaining the right to specify the minimum number of teachers required in any year, ministers have decided to transfer responsibility for specifying maximum numbers, and for their distribution across the sector, to the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council. A working group is being established to consider the role of the Inspectorate in relation to other forms of quality control. The same working group will consider more flexible patterns of teacher education. The General Teaching Council has been asked to undertake a review of probation. A framework for continuing professional development will be the subject of consultation, and the Government, in association with the GTC and the funding council, will undertake further work in connection with the question of the costs of enhancing partnership between teacher education institutions and schools.
The only major recommendation not to be accepted concerns the establishment of a strategic forum for teacher education. The Government has decided to await the report of the working group.
There may be some who consider that the system has had to adjust to too many dislocating changes. Nevertheless, if it is recognised that the Sutherland report was an independent analysis, drawing attention to areas where a strong system can be made even stronger, those of us working in the system should welcome the Government's proposals. No teacher education institution in Scotland received a rating of excellent in the 1995 assessment of initial teacher education. All of us need to consider ways in which we can further enhance the quality of teacher education. The measures intimated by the Government should assist in that task.
Mention is made in the package that the national guidelines for teacher education courses are under review and are to be the focus of consultation in the near future. The guidelines were last revised in 1993 and at the corresponding stage of the consultation process I was given space on these pages to offer a view on the changes that might be required. I called for a structural change in our arrangements for teacher education and proposed three types of teaching qualification. The first would cover the age range 0-8 and enable students to become specialists in education in the early years. The second was intended to cover upper primary and the early years in secondary school.
The intention behind that proposal was to blur the distinction that is drawn between primary and secondary schooling so as to ensure that pupils' education developed without loss of momentum. It was also my concern to suggest that a greater degree of specialisation might be required in the upper stages of primary and perhaps less sharply differentiated teaching in the early years of secondary. Finally, I proposed that there should be a third teaching qualification covering upper secondary and further education.
It would be fair to say that while these proposals earned a few supportive comments from colleagues they had zero impact on those who fashion the guidelines. Yet I am inclined to the view that the proposals I made in 1992 have even greater relevance in 1998. If anything, the importance of the early years has been well recognised and the need for early education specialists is widely acknowledged. Besides, there is evidence that all is not well with the middle years.
Levels of achievement, judged by international standards, are extremely disappointing, and the transfer from primary to secondary continues to be problematic. Finally, the Higher Still development programme has made the boundary between upper secondary and further education much more permeable. In short, it is my view that we are stuck with three types of teaching qualification that no longer reflect educational provision. Tempting as it may be to propose the same changes in 1998, it is unlikely that they would attract much support. There is now a deeply entrenched view in Scotland that the primary teacher should be a generalist and it is unlikely that there will be much retreat from that position. Moreover, it is now acknowledged that, given the relatively large number of small schools, it would be extremely difficult to staff Scotland's primary schools unless the generalist primary teacher is retained.
If we are committed to the notion of the generalist primary teacher, what changes might be contemplated to minimise some of the difficulties in the middle years of schooling in Scotland? I believe that there are three that need to be reflected in the revised guidelines.
First, the guidelines should make increased provision for specialised study. Currently they allow students to undertake two specialist studies. Given the pressure on the primary BEd, there is a case for restricting that to one area of academic or professional specialism, perhaps over the third and fourth years of the BEd degree.
The second change concerns the scope of the existing BEd programme. While the 1993 guidelines required adequate coverage over seven or eight different curriculum areas, there has in the intervening years been intensifying pressure to address what are thought to be areas of omission in that degree. Thus, teacher education institutions have been castigated for failing to devote sufficient time to science and technology, to Scottish history and literature, to health education and to foreign languages. It will be surprising indeed if the revised guidelines do not reflect these pressures.
If even more areas require to be covered, we shall have a BEd degree that is even more superficial than at present. The current BEd is an honours degree programme; it ought to make provision for students to pursue studies in reasonable depth. The more areas that are identified for coverage, the more the principle of depth of study is disregarded in favour of breadth of study. One approach might be to identify those areas of the primary curriculum that the Government judges to be of more importance than others. South of the border, David Blunkett has already affirmed his own curricular priorities, maintaining that language, maths, information and communication technology, and science are fundamental to all subsequent learning.
Perhaps the Scottish Office might be persuaded to identify its priorities. If all areas of the curriculum are thought to be of academic equivalence, on the grounds that the 5-14 programme represents a national curriculum framework for which student teachers must be prepared, we shall not strengthen the BEd in the way in which it needs to be strengthened.
My third suggestion is that teachers should have an entitlement to continuing professional development after graduation. They should be expected and encouraged to extend their professional understanding in ways that will strengthen the academic base from which they operate.
Unless these three proposals are taken up, the revised guidelines will contribute little.
Professor Gordon Kirk is principal of Moray House Institute of Education.