Don't let the thrill of a first job turn sour

14th August 1998 at 01:00
Two thousand intending teachers have just completed their initial education. Despite initially poor employment prospects they are generally gifted and motivated people who should do well in teaching over their career lifetimes. Those of us in teacher education can advise our outgoing students of a promising lifetime in education because of the overall health of Britain's economy and the advancing age of those currently employed as teachers.

Indeed, the prospects are alarmingly bright on a UK basis and the worry is that instead of the recent past of too little work for too many teachers, this year's output will soon face the opposite tendency. In England, average class sizes are reaching alarmingly high levels and there is a shortage of about 20,000 teachers. While these trends have not yet affected Scotland, the signs are of a shortage in some areas of the curriculum and a growing difficulty in obtaining appropriate supply teachers.

With at least 65 per cent of all teachers in Scotland over the age of 40 and 20 per cent over the age of 50 there must therefore be continuing recruitment at a significant level. With Higher Still creating new subjects there is a need to ensure that teachers exist who can meet the academic and professional demands of the curriculum. With knowledge growing at a dramatic rate there is an expectation that teachers have or can acquire the specialist expertise to cope.

The Government is expressing a commitment to education as its top priority, and we expect it to ensure that these new demands are met by improvements in teacher education, in funding for continuing professional development, and in enhancing the quality of those who are registered as teachers. At last there are signs of a recognition of these needs in a new consultation paper on teachers' continuing professional development (TESS, July 10) issued by the Scottish Office.

Continuing professional development would be one way of ensuring teacher expertise was kept up to date and extensions to the curriculum accommodated. But that development programme must go beyond the emphasis on training for headteachers in managing schools, on Higher Still as a managed change in the curriculum, and on development planning and target-setting as means of ensuring teacher compliance.

The alternatives of investing in teachers' own professional skills, in the processes of the curriculum and in the school as a community of peers with shared values need to be strongly emphasised by those who take part in this latest consultation exercise.

At present, if a teacher moves from one role to another, the General Teaching Council cannot demand that they prove possession of the academic and professional background to justify that change. If a new subject arrives in the primary or secondary curriculum, post-experience courses which offer some insight into the requisite knowledge and skills are typically provided, but teachers are not required to demonstrate that knowledge and skill as a condition of registration. In areas of cross-curricular practice such as guidance, there is no national requirement for training or qualification or registration.

There are therefore thousands of teachers delivering learning in areas where they have not been assessed nor are they registered. Fortunately, the Scottish Office now recognises this and asks what should be done about it.

One important fact is that Scotland still possesses a generous surplus of people who wish to become teachers. But dealing with the match between teacher qualifications and the curriculum in schools is a larger problem. It is simplistic to argue that increased salaries and better working conditions will provide an adequate supply of teachers in shortage subjects.

A far better strategy is one based on a distinction between the fundamental skills of a teacher and the prevailing curricular needs at any point in time. If you try to match today's curriculum by recruiting those qualified to teach today's subjects, what do you do with these teachers when the curriculum moves on? But if you train today's teachers in the fundamentals of pedagogy then as the curriculum changes they have the skills to enable them to acquire new subject knowledge and integrate it with their learning and teaching expertise.

Beyond that, only one further necessary condition remains. As teachers are required to change their subject mastery in keeping up with changes in the curriculum, they must prove the quality of that mastery.

Any change in balance of teaching duties beyond a minimum level should therefore require to be reflected in each teacher's registration status with the General Teaching Council. Until we tackle the issue of changes in need and changes in expertise through the vehicle of registration, we may not even be able to find out what can be done.

It is remarkable that so many young and mid-career people who left initial teacher education this summer are excited about their prospects. Teaching has had a bad press. Many teachers are dispirited by the lack of career advancement. Most have little desire and less opportunity to enhance their expertise as a means of increasing their job satisfaction. This disjunction between the optimism of the beginning teacher and the pessimism of the established teacher needs to be recognised.

Providing more of the same will lead to a further decline in the number and quality of teachers. A radical alternative in terms of continual professional development, linked to periodic demonstrations of professional competence, is needed and the consultation paper is a welcome recognition of that.

Professor Douglas Weir is dean of the faculty of education at Strathclyde University.

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