Let's be positive - there are upsides to 'could do better'

9th September 2011 at 01:00
The call to improve teacher education is welcome and will be answered by accepting Donaldson's challenging vision

Perhaps the most common refrain in education is "could do better" . I certainly remember the phrase well from school reports when I was a child. I still consider it relevant to my professional life now.

At individual, institutional and systemic levels, the consistent message in education is "could do better". Some see that as a negative message, saying that the current situation is somehow deficient. I do not. The reason for my positive take on this idea is that at the heart of education is precisely the aspiration that things could be better. Without that aspiration, educational institutions are simply places of incarceration, reproducing all the inequalities and woes with which we are more than familiar.

Now, education cannot cure those woes and it is not only in education that we could do better. However, in education we have a particular responsibility in relation to contributing to the aspiration of things being better. It is part of our professional responsibility and something that relies on the commitment to our own education as well as the education of others.

It is that call to do better and a professional responsibility to take up the challenge that lies at the heart of the process now in play in Scotland to take forward the recommendations of Teaching Scotland's Future. In that report, Graham Donaldson set out a challenging vision for how the professional learning of educators - across their careers, from start to finish - needs to change, if we are to continue to improve education for young people.

An important part of that change involves changing cultures - new approaches to partnership, shared responsibilities and, perhaps most importantly, developing a professional system and not simply good professionals, trusting and respecting new and existing educators to take responsibility and do better. The focus then is on building a high-trust professional system and moving away from what has become perceived as a low-trust focus on individual professionals.

Change of that kind is hard work and will take time, but there is a sense that all of those involved have accepted the need for change and bought into a clear process for working together to deliver it. No one expects this to be easy and some no doubt expect failure. But such is the nature of attempts to do things better - for young people, for education, for the profession.

Taking this forward will be done through the implementation of many of the most important recommendations in Graham Donaldson's report by the National Partnership Group for Teaching Scotland's Future, involving universities, local authorities, professionals and national organisations. I am one of the chairs of the group, representing the university sector, and share that responsibility with colleagues from the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland and the Scottish Government.

At the end of this month, our group will complete its first milestone by reporting back to Michael Russell, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, with a clear and comprehensive work plan, setting out how we intend to deliver our agenda.

Then the hard work will truly begin. Over the coming months, colleagues will be looking in detail at how to deliver improved teacher education through a more cohesive early phase of professional learning (across what we currently view as initial teacher education and the probation year), through career-long professional learning and through more focused professional learning for leadership that we expect will truly make a difference over a teacher's time in the profession. We are planning for that work to be completed by June 2012.

That work needs to be taken forward in an open and engaging way. Given the contested views surrounding schooling and the role and effectiveness of teachers, it will no doubt involve robust debate and that is something from which we should not shy away. Too many times in education we remain caught in Plato's cave, watching the shadows from the fire on the wall and taking them to be reality. The sunlight of evidence and logical argument will need to come to the fore.

We believe that a great deal of the thinking that needs to underpin it can happen through workshops, seminars and online engagement. We will make sure that wherever possible there are opportunities for educators to be directly involved in the process. That is important because, ultimately, those who will need to make these changes work are those who are directly involved in the professional education of teachers, which includes teachers themselves.

That is why we are taking the opportunity afforded by a keynote roundtable session, on September 23, at this year's Scottish Learning Festival to update practitioners and others with an interest on progress and where we are going next. The responsibility for doing things better to support the development of a professional system is something that cannot be simply handed to educators by others. It is something we can either continue to work on - and it is a continuous process - or we can reproduce the never- ending story of woes which so often pepper the media stories of education. Of course we can do better. We can do good as well.

Richard Edwards, Chair of National Partnership Group for Teaching Scotland's Future.

Professor Richard Edwards is head of the School of Education at Stirling University and chair of the Scottish Teacher Education Committee.

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