Donaldson is not the full answer

28th January 2011 at 00:00

Education is fundamental to Scotland's future. We are a small country, with enormous potentials of renewable energy but much underused land, a fragile marine environment, and limited mineral resources apart from high-carbon coal and oil. There is hardly anything we need which does not depend on cleverness in planning, designing and producing. After the financial crisis, we can no longer afford the illusion that casino capitalism will make us all prosperous.

Furthermore, we suffer from extremes of social division, with scandalously large numbers of children whose lives are blighted by poverty. This presents an enormous challenge to teachers and policy-makers charged with raising educational achievement. We need, therefore, a high-quality education system that promotes social as well as technical thinking, and which will generate the social concern and active citizenship to enable all to prosper. Teacher education and development is potentially a powerful motor to enhance the quality of schooling and support national well-being.

The Donaldson review of teacher education has succeeded in tidying up some current problems in the interests of greater efficiency, but it does little more than that. But first let us look at the positives.

It is a great relief that Donaldson has rejected calls to abandon the current university-school partnership in favour of teacher training based mainly in schools. An "apprenticeship" model works best when novices are taught largely to imitate well-established practices; it is clearly inadequate in a fast-changing world which constantly raises new challenges and ways of learning.

Of course, there is already, and necessarily, a strong element of apprenticeship in current initial teacher education, particularly during school placements. But Donaldson clearly argues for a stronger partnership with universities stretching into the induction year, based on the belief that teaching requires "a strong intellectual and academic dimension to initial teacher education and the positive contribution of research to inquiry-based practice".

The report insists on careful choice of placement schools, including "hub schools" developed with support from universities. It calls for placements to be seen as a site for analysis and research, not only practice. It presents the case for careful preparation of mentors and supervising teachers in schools.

Given the uneven and often limited nature of professional development in the induction year, and the lack of continuity from the BEd or PGDE, it calls for induction to be jointly led and organised between authorities and universities. There has certainly been a lack of continuity between initial teacher education and induction. This is to be strengthened and underpinned academically by opening a "masters account" for qualifying teachers, including some elements of their initial qualification together with more substantial components of induction and later CPD, as well as part-time university and distance-learning courses.

In order to improve the quality of some applicants, the report proposes screening tests for literacy and numeracy. I am somewhat puzzled by this, since applicants must have Higher English and Credit maths; if these key national qualifications are thought to be unreliable, shouldn't the inspectorate intervene to improve them?

Donaldson calls for the demanding one-year PGDE to be enhanced through distance learning before and after the course. This is particularly necessary for PGDE primary students since they have only four months at university to cover the whole curriculum.

Donaldson's most dramatic proposal is to abandon the four-year BEd (almost entirely primary) in favour of a "concurrent degree", which combines educational studies and teacher preparation with another specialism such as maths, history or a foreign language. This has some advantages, including more flexibility if graduates fail to find teaching posts, the opportunity to pursue another academic discipline to honours level, and the broader social experience of being a university student.

Having taught BEd primary students for over 10 years, I have often worried at their isolation from other university students. Some candidates arrive relatively immature: they graduate seriously dedicated to their chosen profession but with little wider understanding of the big wide world. Indeed, I have often found myself wanting to advise a candidate during interview to come back after travelling a bit. The most typical prior experience of BEd students is running Sunday school classes or helping with brownies, which involves responsibility and organising skills but possibly a limited social horizon.

If we are talking about a Curriculum for Excellence which will promote "responsible citizens", "effective contributors" and the rest, we need inspirational primary school teachers who are able to share their enthusiasms with children.

Donaldson speaks of new selection criteria, but the devil is in the detail. I find it difficult to believe that literacy and numeracy tests are the answer. It is important to broadcast the understanding that 16- year-olds aspiring to be primary teachers need to join the school choir and climb a mountain or two, and that concern about climate change might involve greater initiative and collaboration than recycling a coffee jar. Candidates need to understand that a Duke of Edinburgh award and joining a youth theatre group may be as important as helping out with brownies or babysitting.

It is equally important for university schools of education actively to support students' interests and encourage them towards new ones. A second subject, whether French or biology, is only part of the answer. The development of a record of achievement, a programme of extension lectures and the provision of choirs and drama groups for beginners, would prove cost-effective ways of enriching the learning of the next generation of Scottish primary school children.

Terry Wrigley has recently retired from Moray House at Edinburgh University. His latest book `Changing Schools' appears in the autumn.

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