A question of partnership

18th April 1997 at 01:00
Academic institutions have a major role to play in professional development, according to Myra Pearson and Bill Thomson.

Professional development in teaching has come a long way in the past 30 years. Up until then, although a few teachers did take MEds, more often than not they left for jobs in colleges, educational administration or in psychological services. From the mid-70s, things began to change. The Scottish Education Department and local authorities imposed training requirements on teachers to enable them to implement new forms of organisation, new curricula and examination systems, new teaching methods, and a new recognition of special needs.

The authorities decided who had access to this training and where and how it was to be provided. However, this top-down model no longer meets the needs of the profession. Staff development is affected by many factors, some internal to education and some external. Devolved management of resources to schools, local government re-organisation, incorporation of further education colleges, competition for jobs, the establishment of development planning and appraisal with a heightened awareness of staff development needs, as well as the influence of a growing national training culture that is affecting all professions - all of these have had a significant impact.

This has led to a growing awareness among teachers of the need to take "career-long" development of knowledge and skill into their own hands. Educational establishments have had to become sophisticated in managing the development of all of their staff.

Inevitably, the Jordanhill part of the University of Strathclyde, like other teacher education institutions, has been greatly affected. We have always had a major responsibility for initial teacher education, but in the past, post-initial training and support was almost ad hoc in its nature. Meeting the needs of an ever-changing world has resulted, however, in the need to establish "career-long" frameworks for continuing professional development. In this, the role of academic institutions becomes even more significant for they can provide initiative and leadership as well as stability.

Performing this role demands a clear definition of what we provide. Research and consultancy activities take us to the heart of educational development. Moreover, we are especially qualified to understand the nature of learning and how to promote it, among adults as much as with young people. We have a responsibility to use this knowledge and skill in promoting development and in leading change.

Of course, there are many others in the educational system, including teachers in schools and colleges themselves, who are more expert than academics in particular areas of the curriculum, methodology, or management, for example. The way forward - to use both kinds of expertise - is to work in partnership, where partners contribute according to their skills and knowledge.

This new environment requires teacher education institutions to employ a new approach: professional development must be customer-focused and sufficiently flexible to accommodate a variety of individual, establishment and authority needs. Adoption of these principles has brought about changes in short courses and accredited programmes.

Good illustrations of these principles in action are the ways in which authorities have implemented and developed the University of Strathclyde's framework for programmes of management development. In some authorities, the basic framework has been customised to provide a balance of modules which focus on both the authority and establishment needs, and modules which enable individuals to address their own development needs. In others, the authorities have encouraged senior staff to identify the most appropriate means of professional development for each of them, whether through attendance at courses, work-based learning or involvement in higher degrees.

In each of these examples there is a partnership between the university, the authority and the individual. To be successful, the programme must meet the needs of both the authority and the individual. The crucial element in achieving this success is that individuals have choice and so feel a sense of ownership of their own professional development.

More fundamentally, these principles recognise the value of learning that is based in the workplace, and have resulted in the development of work-based learning agreements. Typically, these learning agreements involve individuals or groups negotiating their own goals, the way in which these goals will be achieved, and the level at which these goals will be assessed. Individuals are therefore able to ensure that the outcome of their learning is of direct relevance to both themselves and their establishment. Advantages of this form of learning include access to appropriate external expertise; accreditation of learning which can be used as part of a postgraduate programme; and a reduction in the time staff require to be released from the workplace. Additionally, and arguably most importantly, it capitalises on the real life experience of work.

The changes in the nature of the provision of professional development have resulted in changes within Jordanhill. Not only must offerings be customer-focused and flexible, we must also adopt similar management structures. We must find out what is needed and create products which meet those needs.

Jordanhill must, therefore, have in place not only an appropriate framework for accreditation but also quality assurance procedures which ensure that being appropriate does not mean lowering standards. A postgraduate certificate, diploma or degree gained through a customer-driven programme or work-based learning agreement cannot be less rigorous than one obtained through more traditional study methods.

Teacher education institutions have an important role to play in continuing professional development. They are well-placed to make the link between developments in initial and post-initial education and training; they have the skills, knowledge and expertise to provide the structure and content of professional development programmes, and they have the quality assurance procedures to give academic and professional credibility. But unless they continue to be relevant to the needs of their customers, these advantages will be short-lived.

Myra Pearson and Bill Thomson are associate deans in the Faculty of Education at the University of Strathclyde and are jointly responsible for the faculty's professional development unit.

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