A sorry tale of two systems

9th January 2004 at 00:00
The recent furore following Jack McConnell's statement that primary trained teachers should be allowed to teach in secondary schools was neither very surprising nor unexpected. After all, this was an attack on one of Scottish education's most sacred cows.

The reaction to Mr McConnell's announcement suggests that the traditional view still prevails as does the outmoded belief in some quarters that secondary teachers teach subjects while primary teachers teach children.

There are at least two important myths that have to be discounted. In the first place, the primary child does not undergo some magical transformation in the way he or she acquires knowledge and skills on entering secondary school. There is no logical or biological reason why there should be two quite separate systems of delivering the curriculum before and after the age of 12.

The second and more insidious assumption is the belief that, somehow or other, primary school teachers do not have the teaching skills needed to cope with pupils once they have entered secondary school. Indeed, some of the arguments for preserving the status quo represent a throwback to the kind of academic snobbery that bedevilled the teaching profession for generations.

Some of us can remember the acclaim that was given to the honours graduate in the secondary school compared to the disparaging remarks that someone was "only an article 39 teacher" (the teaching qualification that used to be assigned to an ordinary graduate). Yet there is little or no correlation between one's academic achievement and one's ability to teach.

Mr McConnell's proposal need not necessarily lead to any dilution or erosion of teaching standards - if it is properly monitored. Teaching is an art that can be acquired and developed, but which is to a large extent innate. It consists of a set of skills that are transferable, regardless of the particular environment or the age of those being taught.

All teachers in Scottish schools, graduate and non-graduate alike, have been trained to deliver the 5-14 curriculum. Given the expertise accumulated over the years by the minority of non-graduates remaining in the profession, any lack of a purely academic qualification is an irrelevance.

Over the years, various suggestions have been proposed on how to overcome this formidable barrier in education. Ideas have ranged from the creation of a primary 8 class based in the secondary school, to the establishment of a middle school for children from eight or 10 to 14. Sadly, attempts to establish the latter failed, partly because of the insistence on "proper educational qualifications".

The present proposals would seem a golden opportunity to re-visit the issue by setting up a cross-party working group to see if there is a way forward.

If and when McConnell's ideas come to fruition, it will be interesting to see if they lead to a significant improvement in academic standards. This, after all, will be the acid test.

Jim Towers SNP education spokesperson Aberdeenshire Council (former principal teacher of English and lecturer in education)

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