Impressive initials

26th September 1997 at 01:00
New Teachers in an Urban Comprehensive School Learning in Partnership Edited by Ruth Heilbronn and Crispin Jones, Trentham Books, #163;14.95.

In these troubled times of teacher shortages and the particular problems of recruitment and retention in London, this book is essential reading for school managers and policy-makers at both national and local level. There is no quick fix to create good teachers.

Those who have been trained through this dynamic partnership between Hampstead School and London University's Institute of Education are fortunate indeed. Two confident and successful institutions have forged a mutually beneficial relationship to educate and train teachers. Furthermore, each has been happy to use that process to re-examine and redefine its aims and activities, as is the way with good organisations. The claim that the book does not seek to provide a template for initial teacher training (ITT) accords with the central theme of "pragmatic but intellectually grounded debate" informing policy and practice.

Through the voices of headteacher Tamsyn Imison, heads of department and beginning teachers, the opening section, "The Wider School Context" presents a remarkable coherence of philosophy, organisation and pedagogy. This is a "learning school" emphasising reflective practice and teamwork. In particular, the chapters on information technology, special educational needs, bilingual learners, and refugees give clear and honest expositions of how an understanding of these realities must underpin all teaching and learning in the city.

The school has a "can-do" philosophy, exhibiting resilience and professional commitment. It shows that high standards can be achieved in spite of a frustrating lack of resources, and gives authentic voice to the experience of all who work with needy children.

This excellent introduction to good practice for beginning teachers (BTs) has much to offer those aiming to improve schools, be they teachers, inspectors or policy-makers.

The next section examines the establishment and evolution of a school-based programme for ITT from the perspective of both the school and the institute, focusing on the practical work of agreeing policies, procedures, roles and standards. The uneasiness with defining competencies reflects the debate about initial teacher education as well as training.

The key role of heads of department in implementing a successful programme is clearly described, and many examples of the documentation are produced. Some of the pro forma referred to could usefully have been included, although the authors might argue that the very process of dialogue and construction of key documents must be undertaken by each partnership in its own context.

Hampstead's teachers have benefited from effective mentoring training, combined with the school-based research projects led by the institute and the BTs. Without the latter, the book argues, it would be but "a craft model of apprenticeship training".

This potentially powerful argument for partnership gets lost in the final chapters, which sit uneasily with the rest of the book. There is a strong demand for the retention of the current model and the role of university departments in providing a theoretical context for school practice and facilitating the networking of schools. But there is too much discussion of urban society, the shortcomings of the Conservative government's market policies, and critiques of the national curriculum. Only the most dedicated BTs should read this section lest they lose heart at the impossibility of the task facing them. Old hands will be familiar with the arguments.

We could, instead, have heard more about the institute facilitating networking between its schools and the excellent training given to teacher tutors, which are each a proven strength of the institute's partnerships. An opportunity has been missed to demonstrate that Hampstead School is not unique in enjoying a productive relationship with the institute.

It is a pleasure to read a celebration and affirmation of what we know to be good values and good practice. This authentic and accessible account of the struggle to achieve the best in education could be approached by lifting ideas in a pick-and-mix fashion. This would, however, miss the central point - that only the "full monty" will do if you are aiming for lasting quality. Teacher education should be undertaken only by those who have understood the nature of good teaching and learning. It can't be bolted on to a shaky structure.

Our policy makers might be moved to reflect that teacher goodwill and commitment are no substitute for proper funding and will not be present in such abundance among the student teachers currently studying in our schools and universities.

Helen Metcalf is head of Chiswick School, London

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