Donaldson paves the way for professional enrichment

18th March 2011 at 00:00
Report's focus on partnerships may have stolen a march on colleagues south of the border

The appearance of the Donaldson report reviewing teacher education in Scotland within weeks of Michael Gove's White Paper setting out proposals for the reform of what is known in England as teacher training allows us to compare thinking north and south of the border on a key issue.

There are some points of similarity: both documents affirm the critical importance of teacher education in enhancing the quality of educational provision, the White Paper even carrying the title The Importance of Teaching; both are committed to stricter criteria of admission to teacher education programmes, including higher academic qualifications, stiffer tests of literacy and numeracy, and greater reliance on the assessment of personal qualities; and both seek to justify their proposals by invoking international evidence from "top-performing" systems, although the Donaldson report has the wider evidential base that is to be expected from an independent and systematic review.

Beyond such common features there are striking differences. The most significant of these is that the White Paper, reflecting the ministerial view that teaching is a craft, calls for more on-the-job training: "observing teaching and being observed, having the opportunity to plan, prepare, reflect and teach with other teachers".

That view of learning to become a teacher has been acclaimed by successive secretaries of state in England and resulted in a policy of progressively diminishing the role of universities in teacher education. It has led to a substantial increase in the proportion of programmes that is spent on school placement and to the emergence of "employment-based routes" into teaching and "school-centred initial teacher training", in which the role of universities is minimised and even abolished.

The White Paper seems to continue that policy by proposing to increase the proportion of those entering teaching through these non-university routes, and by the creation of Teaching Schools. These will be analogous to teaching hospitals and will form "a national network of outstanding schools" which will take a lead responsibility for providing initial teacher training and continuing professional development in their area. Their work will be accredited, not by a university, but apparently by the National College for School Leadership.

One concession to the universities lies in the proposal to create University Training Schools, to be formed from the "best higher education providers of initial teacher training". These will be run by universities (more "free" schools?) as centres for teaching pupils, training teachers and conducting research on teaching and learning.

The White Paper does not make it clear whether these new developments will run in parallel with existing university-school partnerships or eventually replace them. What is noteworthy is that the continued marginalisation of the universities, including the possibility of a reduced involvement in CPD for teachers, is being pursued despite the fact that already their programmes are substantially school-based, and despite the evidence, made public by Ofsted the day before the White Paper appeared, which showed that university-school partnerships were more effective than employment- based routes.

By contrast, the Donaldson report makes repeated reference to teaching as a profession, in the sense that, while it calls for the mastery of craft skills, which are best acquired in school settings, it also calls for practitioners to draw on relevant evidence and the extensive knowledge base that underpins effective teaching. The report is permeated by a view of teachers "as reflective, accomplished and enquiring professionals who have the capacity to engage fully with the complexities of education and to be key actors in shaping and leading educational change".

That conception of teaching persuades the report to argue that universities have a central role in initial teacher education; that the craft skills of teaching "must be based upon and informed by fresh insights into how best to meet the challenge of change"; and that "simply advocating more time in the classroom as a means of preparing teachers for their role is therefore not the answer to creating better teachers".

For Donaldson, assuming more effective recruitment, and assuming also a strengthening of the academic base from which teachers operate, the answer lies in the strengthening of university-school partnerships. This will be achieved by closer collaboration on initial teacher education, induction and CPD, including masters-level work; by the creation of trained mentors to oversee students on placement and to take responsibility for their assessment; by securing placements that emphasise "effective professional learning, reflection, critical analysis and evidence-based decision- making"; and by the creation of "hub teaching schools", that will have a function broadly similar to that of Teaching Schools but, importantly, work in close association with at least one university.

The strengthening of university-school partnership through hub teaching schools is seen by the Donaldson report as a way of healing the divisions that can appear between school teaching, teacher education, and research, divisions that have been the Achilles' heel of teacher education for decades. By creating such centres, by bringing school staff and university staff together, by the use of dual appointments and other forms of staff interchange, we would create a context for stronger partnership, for enriching the education of teachers and supporting their professional development, for research and enquiry into the improvement of learning, and for securing the enhanced professionalism of teachers that the White Paper in England may well frustrate.

Gordon Kirk, formerly dean of education and vice-principal of Edinburgh University, is academic secretary to the Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers.

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