Are we too discrete for our own good?

22nd June 2001 at 01:00
As the Government launches its recruitment drive for more teachers, some barriers to entry should be dismantled, Douglas Weir argues

I FOUND myself recently at a conference on social subjects 5-14 being angry with teacher colleagues who felt that teaching "beyond their own subject" on integrated courses would lower the quality of pupils' learning. But then I wondered how well our own faculty of education dealt with the matter of integrated courses and what attitudes we helped beginning teachers develop on this topic.

The good news is that many undergraduate courses are now cross-disciplinary and integrated. The bad news is that many graduates of such courses are not eligible to teach in secondary schools because they lack a sufficient volume of specialist qualifications to enter a subject-specific secondary postgraduate course.

So, many people who are anxious to fill the vacancies for schoolteachers, and who would be gifted in teaching children of secondary age, are barred from entering teacher education. This does not seem sensible, especially at a time when thousands of extra teachers are required.

A means has to be found to ensure that secondary pupils are given a balance of integrated programmes, through which social skills and sound learning strategies are acquired, and rigorous subject-specific programmes through which they acquire specialist knowledge and skills. There is a glaring anomaly in teacher education entry regulations. Just as school curricula are becoming more integrated, so the entry requirements for secondary teaching are becoming more subject specific.

Rather than set severe hurdles at the point of entry to teacher education, it would be better to set these hurdles at the point of exit. Then the pool of applicants to secondary teaching would be significantly increased, even if some would have to top up their academic credentials before completing initial teacher education.

This breadth of entry could be achieved while still requiring teacher education students to demonstrate sufficient subject competence and skill before entering the profession.

But, rather than assuming that you can only qualify as a secondary teacher through a specialist subject route, it would be helpful if additional qualifications could be gained in the teaching of integrated courses or subjects. We have made this provision in science for some time where, in addition to a qualification in biology or chemstry or physics, students gain a qualification in general science.

To offer history or geography or modern studies teachers an additional qualification in social subjects would offer a rigorous preparation during the programme of teacher education which would help convince them that they were capable of delivering integrated social subject courses once in post. To meet the time demands of this additional element, it would be helpful to have a modest extension to the initial teacher education course or a slight reduction in the number of weeks spent on school experience.

Similarly, if teachers in training gained more experience and more confidence in using IT and the web, they would realise that much of the knowledge they required to deliver integrated courses was readily available and easily mastered. That would leave them free to concentrate on the skills which are common to cognate subjects, which cannot be acquired through the web, and which are the special expertise of the professional teacher. Then, rather than being worried about lack of knowledge, teachers could enjoy the "depths of their skill". Through this modest extension of the entry requirements and equally modest extension to the programme of teacher education we would be more likely to deliver both integrated and specialist courses to a high standard.

I have used social subjects 5-14 merely as a convenience for raising a more fundamental issue. We would be better placed to meet the McCrone agenda if we broadened our intakes and broaden our courses. This would in no way dilute the quality of entrants to the profession so long as those in government and the public who want both specialist and integrated courses are willing to pay the price. That price is greater wastage in initial teacher education courses and a longer period of time spent on these courses.

There is, of course, an even more radical option. Anyone who watches BEd primary students working with secondary-age pupils can quickly see how well-suited their primary training is to the task. Especially when teaching an integrated programme, primary education students seem not to find any difficulty in meeting pupil interests and pupil learning needs just because these pupils are beyond primary school age.

A primary teaching course which qualifies its graduates to teach from ages 10 to 14 perhaps?

Douglas Weir is dean of the faculty of education at Strathclyde University.

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