Let's put first things first

27th June 2003 at 01:00
Tom Conlon and colleagues argue for a radically different approach to initial teacher education

COTLAND'S distinctive approach to the preparation of new teachers should benefit significantly from post-McCrone reforms. Particularly welcome is the teacher induction scheme, ensuring that the probationary period of new teachers is no longer vulnerable to an erratic succession of short-term teaching posts.

The scheme is an important step towards achieving what for the teaching profession should become a learning framework for the early stages of a teaching career. If it can build coherently upon the foundations provided by initial teacher education (ITE) programmes, and also prepare the way for study towards a chartered teacher's award, then entrants to teaching will have an excellent introduction to career-wide learning.

But, although the system looks promising, it is no secret that it has been hurriedly prepared. One particular problem looks worryings - the lack of co-ordination between ITE specialists and those who implement the induction scheme.

The first issue is that the standard for full registration differs very little from the previously published one for ITE programmes. The false impression is hence given that all the important learning has been overtaken at the ITE stage, leaving probationers the task of consolidating and practising but not learning much new.

The situation seems to have arisen because the two sets of standards were developed independently. What may now be needed is to review how preparation for teaching can make the best use of the increased time the new arrangements give.

Now that courses such as the PGCE are the first stage, and no longer the only one, in educating a teacher, the case for trying to "cover everything" in a PGCE curriculum is outdated. More realistic standards should be set for ITE that focus on a core of foundation knowledge and skills, leaving clearly defined areas for development in the induction year and beyond.

The best way to ensure continuity of learning between PGCE programmes and the induction year may not be via two sets of standards but by adapting and extending existing PGCE course content into an integrated two-year curriculum. This could exploit the different strengths of university-based and school-based contexts for learning in order to provide a well-paced coverage of theoretical knowledge and practical skills.

The partnerships between school and university staff which have proved their worth in PGCE programmes could be extended into the induction year.

Probationer teachers could maintain their status as matriculated postgraduate students of a university while at the same time being employed by schools and councils.

Although the main benefit of an integrated curriculum would be to promote coherent learning, there are many other advantages. The participation of universities in the induction year would provide probationers with access to academic expertise and opportunities for peer-supported learning. Joint assessment is already established in ITE programmes.

The in-service sessions that individual schools and councils now aim to provide for inductees could be boosted by the substantial resources of a university and successful completion of the induction period could be marked by a higher education award. In fact, if the induction programme is to contribute a substantial component of a two-year curriculum, it hardly makes sense to provide it in any other way.

The question arises as to what sort of topics might appear in a two-year curriculum to distinguish it from ITE. We suggest more depth for the existing ones, and a more measured pace to encourage reflection and application. At present, PGCE students spend only 18 weeks in university-based study and this provides a rather brief encounter with such subjects as child psychology and cognitive science, theories and models of pedagogy, and the philosophy, sociology and politics of education.

A two-year curriculum could transform the treatment of these subjects and contribute to a growth of professional understanding that will provide a much more solid foundation for teaching.

he limitations of an overcrowded PGCE curriculum are clear. Extending this curriculum into the induction year would, first, inform teachers' knowledge with the enormous advances in research. Second, education policy would benefit: the high skill levels demanded of teachers to implement initiatives such as new technology, literacy, social inclusion, citizenship and special needs cannot all be accommodated by one-year PGCE programmes.

And third, the complexities of today's schools and the greater challenges posed by young people require a move away from the simple, teacher-centred pedagogies of old.

The development of the induction scheme is promising because it represents a sincere commitment to maintain professional learning beyond the PGCE.

However, a truly joined-up approach to the development of new teachers requires that more be done than simply asking schools and employers to devise a menu of ad hoc in-service events for probationers.

What is necessary is that ITE and the new induction scheme should be planned coherently, with a carefully designed and progressive curriculum, and attainment standards that clearly distinguish the different stages of learning. Co-operation between university and school staff has been a vital feature of ITE and upon it will depend the success of the chartered teachers' arrangements. It would be anomalous to provide an induction year that denies to beginning teachers the benefits of a similar partnership with higher education.

Tom Conlon, Tony Gemmell and Allison Long are tutors on the PGCE (secondary) programme at Edinburgh University.

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