Beware 'crude and simplistic' teacher review

11th December 2009 at 00:00

The announcement of a major review of teacher education invites several observations. All sectors of the education service deserve to be scrutinised from time to time and, if necessary, reformed: teacher education should be no exception.

Initial teacher education and continuing professional development could be improved in a number of ways. Teacher educators would not dispute this. They would point out, however, that courses are constrained by government guidelines and by the standards set out by the General Teaching Council for Scotland. In other words, responsibility for the state of affairs is not theirs alone: attention needs to be directed at policy-making and regulatory bodies.

It is no accident that this proposal has come at a time when there are growing concerns about perceived weaknesses in Scottish education: the country's disappointing performance in international comparisons of educational achievement; the variable readiness of schools to implement Curriculum for Excellence; and the lack of permanent posts for newly- qualified teachers. Has this caused politicians and officials to look for a scapegoat by turning the spotlight on a part of the system that can serve to deflect attention from their own role in the areas of failure?

Headteachers tell me that probationers are generally better informed about the requirements of CfE than some more established staff, suggesting a need to look closely at CPD provision. This is in decline, not because faculties of education are un-willing to offer suitable courses, but because local authorities are strapped for cash.

Where CPD is provided by "official" agencies, it is often criticised as consisting of little more than hints for teachers, death by PowerPoint, or policy propaganda on behalf of government. In my experience, teachers welcome courses that are relevant to the classroom and intellectually challenging, using approaches that respect their professional knowledge and experience.

My fear is that this review could turn into a crude and over-simplified re-hash of the old theorypractice divide. Teachers need to be well equipped with a range of practical skills to handle the many challenges they face. But they also need to be able to analyse pedagogic problems, take account of research evidence and think seriously about the aims and underlying principles of education.

Far from being over-burdened with theory, current courses have been largely stripped of demanding conceptual content and are heavily weighted towards operational issues.

The suggestion that we should move towards an "apprenticeship" model, based largely in schools, while superficially attractive, carries dangers. In particular, it is likely to lead to a more conservative profession, rather than one with the flexibility that CfE requires. It also runs the risk of deflecting experienced teachers from their primary task, the education of pupils.

The appointment of the outgoing senior chief inspector of education to chair the review has rightly been criticised in the press. It smacks of insider dealing and is reminiscent of the bad practice of allowing the inspectorate to evaluate policies which it was previously responsible for promoting.

If the new Education Secretary wants to encourage fresh thinking on this important topic, he needs to look beyond the charmed circle of the established policy community which consists of over-cautious professionals, with the occasional tame academic thrown in to give the illusion of independence.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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