Combination unlocks resistance

9th May 2008 at 01:00
The traditional divide between postgraduate primary and secondary student teachers is set to close. Henry Hepburn reports
The traditional divide between postgraduate primary and secondary student teachers is set to close. Henry Hepburn reports

Primary and secondary student teachers are revelling in the chance to train together - and defending the idea against a sometimes hostile reception in schools.

Aberdeen University is the first Scottish institution to make its postgraduate diploma in education a combined course for primary and secondary student teachers. Their positive reaction suggests the traditional divide between the sectors is generated by mutual misunderstanding.

The programme is built on what staff describe as the "spine" of professional studies, including issues such as social justice and emotional literacy. It involves workshops, lectures, tutor-directed activities and self-study, taking place in combined groups.

Both sets of students are time-tabled to spend the equivalent of about one day a week together, but joint working cuts across the programme. For example, students work on projects together outside classes and debate issues online.

Depute programme director Chris Munro said primary and secondary students had been brought together to share stories of school placements, which had been a "very powerful experience". He also pointed to the "very successful" work of an enterprise group that ran events for P7 and S1 classes on the same day.

Summative course assessments and school experience assessments take the same form for both primary and secondary students.

Full evaluation of the joint programme's first year - which will still result in separate primary and secondary teaching qualifications - will take place after the end of the current session, but informal feedback from students so far has been positive.

Mr Munro said there had been "no resistance from students" to joint teaching, and that both sides had a "much better understanding" of the other's sector and shared interests, because "they are now talking the same language about learning".

When they go out on placements, however, students sometimes encounter a less harmonious relationship across the primary-secondary divide. Mr Munro said students had reported some secondary teachers as "bristling" and "quite openly hostile" to the idea of joint training.

He stressed, however, that the overall response from local authorities and schools had been "very positive", and that continuing professional development events had helped overcome scepticism.

Fellow depute programme director Archie Graham said bridging the gap between the primary and secondary sectors required "enormous change", not so much logistically as culturally. This year's students, however, did not find the concept difficult - because, for them, a joint approach was the norm.

"For our students, it's not been a huge cultural shift," he said. "But for the tutors, there has been a lot to take on board."

Mr Munro and Mr Graham spoke at the inaugural annual meeting of the Scottish Teacher Education Committee at Glasgow University last week, where another presenter showed why it was important to create stronger links between primary and secondary teachers.

Frances Simpson, a primary teacher and researcher at the University of the West of Scotland, has spent years looking at why pupils often regress in science when they move up to secondary school. She started her research after becoming frustrated by the sectors' mutual lack of understanding.

"Secondary teachers didn't have much regard for primary teachers, to be honest - they kind of looked down on them," she said. "Primary teachers had a set idea of secondary teachers as rather menacing."

She believes that "we propagate the divide in initial teacher education by educating our primary and secondary pupils separately" and was encouraged by the presentation from Mr Munro and Mr Graham.

Another delegate impressed by Aberdeen University's postgraduate programme was Grant Mathison, of HMIE, who assesses primary and secondary schools. He said it was "eminently sensible" to train student teachers from both sectors together.

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