Excellent teachers are not photofits

21st January 2011 at 00:00

The title of my report, Teaching Scotland's Future, signals the vital importance of teaching to Scotland's future. It also highlights the need for teaching itself to continue to change if it is to engage confidently with that future. Future success for individuals, societies and economies depends crucially on the quality of education, and the quality of education depends crucially on the quality of teaching and therefore of teachers. The report draws on an exceptionally broad evidence base, which reflects a national and international focus on the importance of teacher education for high-quality education.

The report's recommendations build on the foundations laid by the McCrone report and the teachers' agreement and reflect the aspirations of Curriculum for Excellence. McCrone envisaged a teaching profession that took greater responsibility for its own development, and the revised teachers' contract gave expression to that aspiration. Curriculum for Excellence is about establishing a broad general education for all young people, which embodies deep learning, raises standards and ensures a sound foundation of skills for all young people. It depends on the kind of 21st- century professionalism which McCrone also espoused.

Some see teaching as a relatively simple task that depends heavily on techniques, subject knowledge and personality. These are all important, but 21st-century education is far more complex and challenging and requires the highest standards of professional accomplishment and commitment. Teacher education must go well beyond learning to cope in the classroom and implementing externally-driven change; it must be founded upon strong values, and develop expertise, scholarship, collegiality and creativity. Those qualities should be built from the first day in a university course and be developed throughout career-long learning. Importantly, the same qualities underpin high-quality leadership, and the report argues that, from the outset, all teachers need to develop as leaders.

The 50 recommendations in my report build on existing strengths. Indeed, much of what I propose is only possible because of those strengths. We need to attract able and committed people to seek a career in teaching; select the best from those who apply; give them a satisfying and intellectually-challenging early experience; and then support career-long professional growth and development. The main themes in the report are: selection, coherence, partnership, relevance, quality and efficiency.

Selecting those who are most likely to develop into excellent teachers is no simple matter. I am not recommending a photofit teacher. However, we need to be able to identify people who are well qualified academically, have good social skills, can communicate clearly and, critically, are interested in young people and their learning. Selection for many jobs which are far less important than teaching employs a range of techniques in "assessment centres" to probe such attributes. Greater breadth and rigour in selection will help us to select the right people and will also be fairer to the candidates themselves.

My recommendation on the need to assess competence in literacy and numeracy has attracted particular and sometimes ill-informed attention. Let me be clear: I did not find serious problems in these areas within the teaching profession generally. However, Curriculum for Excellence stresses the need for all teachers to develop and extend these skills in their pupils, and that requires a level of competence which goes well beyond that of the population more generally. Not everyone who applies has the required level of competence, and we need to be clear about the nature and extent of any gap. For most, there will be no gap; for many others, it will be bridgeable.

At present, there is often little relationship between initial teacher education, induction, and continuing professional development. Within initial teacher education, schools and universities play at best complementary roles, with teaching "practice" often seen as separate from the more academic study in the university. We need to establish a much stronger and more enduring relationship between the school and the university, the teacher and the academic, practice and theory.

Recommendations covering the mentoring and assessment of students, the planning of ITE and induction as a continuous experience, and the availability of masters credits within continuing professional development are all intended to strengthen that partnership and achieve greater benefits from it. In addition, more direct engagement between a university and a number of "hub" schools would further reinforce the link between research, scholarship and practice.

The logic of incorporating the former colleges of education into universities lay in exposing student teachers to the wider benefits of the university experience. Preparing to teach should go beyond a focus on preparation for the classroom and should share some academic study with other undergraduate degrees. Primary teachers who have studied additional subjects in depth are a potential asset to their schools. Concurrent degrees provide a good basis for this wider and deeper experience.

The review was wide-ranging and the report covers a lot of ground, which I cannot do justice to here. I have been encouraged by the broad initial welcome for my report. Some recommendations are controversial. They all deserve debate and analysis. I believe they provide a strong basis for the kind of reforms that will be needed if the teaching profession is to meet the many challenges which lie ahead. Some may say that Scotland cannot afford to implement my proposals. I believe that we cannot afford not to. We must remain ambitious for our young people: Scotland's future.

Graham Donaldson conducted the teacher education review and is the former senior chief inspector of education.

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