Clear the way for two-way traffic on teacher education

18th May 2012 at 01:00
England and Scotland could both benefit from a dialogue on recent developments north and south of the border

As I settle into my new role at Oxford and re- adjust to "the peculiarities of the English" (to borrow a phrase from the historian E.P. Thompson), I have been reflecting on what I learned about teacher education during more than 10 years working in Scotland.

Moving from the intensely urban setting of the University of North London to the green fields of the University of Paisley's Craigie campus by the River Ayr in 2001, it was not only the physical contrast that struck me. I quickly became aware of a striking contrast in the professional cultures of teacher education north and south of the border.

As the head of a university school of education in England, my working life had been dominated by what seemed a continuous torrent of edicts and new procedures emanating from official bodies, most notably Ofsted and the Teacher Training Agency (TTA - now the Teaching Agency). As soon as one inspection was over, we were preparing for the next, usually based on different procedures and a different set of "standards".

While encouraged to broaden access to our courses and recruit from non- traditional backgrounds at the same time, we would be heavily criticised if students were judged not to have conventionally strong subject knowledge. We often seemed caught between a rock and a hard place.

One of the most worrying effects of this climate was that innovation and imagination in teacher training programmes were often suppressed. A sustained campaign of vilification of university-led teacher education, with thinktank pamphlets and politicians of the ascendant "New Right", had successfully besmirched such provision as politically tainted and even subversive. Thus there developed within the world of English teacher education a strong culture of compliance.

On the other hand, the English policies did bring school teachers more directly into teacher education, through "partnership" arrangements that involved significant investment in the training of teachers as mentors for students and - more problematically - the transfer of resources from universities to schools.

So, arriving in Scotland, it might have seemed strange to me that teacher education could be running apparently smoothly and reasonably efficiently without the existence of an equivalent of the TTA and with an inspection system that was not based on threats and intimidation.

Having read the sociological work of the 1980s depicting the close-knit education policy community in Scotland, I soon became aware also of some of the critical perspectives that were voiced about the dangers of self- perpetuation, conservatism and inwardness of such a set-up. Nevertheless, there was a huge sense of release from a culture of derision, surveillance and control to one of respect, collaboration and (relative) autonomy.

When I undertook some Anglo-Scottish comparative policy research and started presenting findings at conferences in Scotland, I was sometimes accused of wearing rose-tinted spectacles and told that the enormous differences between the two cultures did not mean that everything in the Scottish garden was rosy.

The first decade of the 21st century was developing as a period of great change for teachers and teacher education in Scotland. Central to these changes were the 2001 agreement on teachers' pay and conditions (McCrone) and the consolidation of initial teacher education into the university system.

McCrone had emerged from a period of industrial tension, not dissimilar to what had been happening in England. However, the improvements in pay and conditions provided for Scottish teachers were viewed enviously by the English teacher unions at that time. There, they had only managed to gain improved pay through accepting a significant "performance-related" element, initially through a performance "threshold". A significant senior policymaker in Scotland at that time told me: "I am not sure we know what the term performance management means in Scotland."

The move of teacher education into universities was not without considerable anxiety. There were those who argued that the monotechnic base for teacher education in the colleges of education had created an enormous specialist strength of professional expertise and experience that would be severely endangered by a transfer into universities, becoming overwhelmed by the wide range of arts, humanities and science subjects offered. There were also great concerns about the expectations on university staff to undertake "high quality" research.

These worries do seem to have been partly realised. However, I would argue that the gains achieved for teaching and teacher education have significantly outweighed the losses. And a key part of my evidence for this comes from a continuing comparison with what has happened in England.

Teaching and teacher education in Scotland have benefited from the trust, respect and confidence shown in teachers and teacher educators, not only within the professional community but in the wider community of parents, the press and politicians.

I am now looking forward to finding out how things have "moved on" in England in the 10 years I have been away. (Watch this space.) Certainly, the Department of Education at Oxford has been a bastion of innovation and success, both in teacher education and in educational research. Some of the recent and current innovations in Scottish teacher education, in the wake of the Donaldson Report, have been partly influenced by the internship scheme at Oxford. One of my hopes is that we can open up increased dialogue between Scottish and English teacher education, to the mutual benefit of both. English politicians and policymakers have hitherto been curiously resistant to learning from their immediate neighbours.

Ian Menter is professor of teacher education and director of professional programmes at the Department of Education, University of Oxford, a position he took up last month. He was formerly at the School of Education, University of Glasgow.

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