Can one teacher still be all things to all pupils?

4th May 2001 at 01:00
The reduction in primary class contact time could be the trigger for a major shift in the way the early curriculum is delivered, says Fred Forrester.

During and after the McCrone inquiry, union negotiators were concerned to remove an injustice to primary teachers that had existed for 25 years. Since the "Yellow Book" governing conditions first appeared in 1976, primary teachers' maximum class contact had been 25 hours but that of secondary teachers had been only 23.5. An alteration made in the 1980s resulted in the figure in special schools and units being reduced to 22.5 hours.

There was a relationship between the original figures from the 1970s and the length of the pupil week, which was 25 hours in primary and 27.5 hours in secondary, but this was increasingly seen not to be directly relevant to teachers' conditions. So teachers' negotiators sought an equalisation at 22.5 hours of the maximum class contact in all sectors.

The McCrone report did not specify maximum contact time, but it did say that there was no justification for a primary-secondary differential. The final outcome was an agreement on a phased reduction in maximum class contact to 22.5 hours by August 2006. Meantime each teacher was to have non-contact time equal to at least one-third of the teacher's class contact commitment.

These changes will require up to 4,000 additional teachers, mainly primary, with recruitment stepped up during the phasing-in period and completed in five years. How are they to be obtained? The four-year BEd degree is often regarded as educationally superior, but recruitment to the course would have to be increased substantially from this autumn. For pragmatic reasons, the one-year postgraduate option is likely to be given priority and, if we are considering more specialism in the upper primary, it may also be educationally preferable. Yet due to a "rationalisation" by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council that appears to have been repudiated by the Education Minister, all the talk in teacher education institutions is about cuts in funding rather than expansion.

At the same time Jack McConnell is pursuing his own short-term "fix" on the back of comments by Gavin McCrone and his colleagues that are widely regarded as based on anecdotal evidence from some teachers about their pre-service experience.

So we are in the unhappy position of not knowing how a key aspect of the McCrone settlement is tobe delivered. There is evidence of a serious lack of co-ordination among various publicly funded agencies. To an extent, everything I have mentioned so far is in the realm of negotiating and funding technicalities. But there are important underlying educational issues of concern to parents and the general public.

In many parts of Scotland, one primary teacher delivers the whole curriculum to one primary class. This is partly because cuts in funding have reduced the number of visiting specialists. But there is also some educational resistance to visiting specialists, particularly in the west of Scotland. Some primary teachers argue that they are trained to deliver the whole curriculum and are likely to do this better, even in the case of expressive arts, than visiting, secondary-trained specialists whose commitment is likely to be limited.

So what happens when primary class contact hours are reduced to 22.5? Will additional "generalists" be available to take over the class when the teacher is on preparation or correction time? Or will there be a large increase in specialist teachers, either as visitors or, in larger primaries, as resident members of staff? We have not begun to discuss this, yet answers are needed for recruitment to teacher education courses over each of the next four years.

The ever-expanding scope of the curriculum (health education, personal and social education, modern foreign languages, citizenship) is such that it is unreasonable to expect one individual to have expertise over such a broad field. Furthermore, the sudden change from generalism to specialism at 12-plus is one of the reasons (if not the only reason) for the 5-14 curriculum not bedding down and consequent difficulties in S1 and S2.

Should the move to secondary come after only six years of primary? This is being considered in at least one education authority, but it will not happen without a considerable head of steam at national level. If it is on the agenda, it ought to be considered before post-McCrone recruitment gathers pace.

We have arrived through serendipity at a turning point where an agreement on salaries and conditions could bring about educational and organisational changes that are justified in their own right but need a trigger. Could the reduction in primary class contact time be that trigger?

Fred Forrester is former depute general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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