Lindsay Paterson

7th September 2012 at 01:00
The professor of education at the University of Edinburgh discusses some of the weak spots in Scotland's approach to teacher education, the shortcomings in Curriculum for Excellence and the significance of the view from the window of his new workplace. Interview by Elizabeth Buie Photography James Glossop

You've become the University of Edinburgh's most-quoted professor of education - why leave the School of Education for the School of Social and Political Science?

I've been 17 years at Moray House and I think a change is always stimulating. The main reasons for the move are that a lot of my research is based with colleagues in George Square, so that is a reason to base myself here. The other one has to do with Donaldson. The major recommendation is that teacher education should be more firmly integrated with the rest of the university, so building bridges between the study of education and the other disciplines of the academic community is an important argument.

Teacher education institutions face great challenges to meet the Donaldson Report's aspirations - are they up to it?

They have to do it in partnership with the university. The way forward is that teachers should no longer mainly be students of a faculty or school of education; they should mainly be students of some other part of the university and have a pedagogical expertise developing alongside their main substantive discipline.

What should teacher education institutions be doing to prepare teachers?

(Making) them think - rigorously and systematically - (and equipping them) to know the difference between opinion and evidence. That sounds rather grand, but in practice it means engaging in detail with the nature of knowledge and of evidence in a range of disciplines that are key to understanding how children develop.

Do we set entry requirements for teaching high enough?

No. We need to see teaching as being one of the most difficult professions in society and therefore requiring some of the best minds that society can produce, and the best training.

What weaknesses do you see in students currently entering teacher training?

The academic standard is not high enough. You cannot teach maths or language development without having an advanced grasp of these subjects. It's a fiction, an illusion, to think you can teach primary maths and yourself only have the equivalent of Standard grade maths. I think you have to have university-level maths. And the typical entrant to an undergraduate teacher education course at the moment would struggle to do maths beyond Higher.

You've been scathing in the past about primary teachers' subject knowledge and assessment abilities - why?

There is good evidence, through no fault of their own, that people who go into primary teacher-education courses don't get prepared with the necessary subject knowledge for the classroom and then don't have adequate opportunities through CPD to develop their subject specialism. But all of that can change - it's not set in stone.

Do you support the principles of Curriculum for Excellence?

Who couldn't? But they are too general - as general and important as the vague principle of universal human rights. But it's when you come down in practice to working out how to achieve these, or the four capacities, that you run into difficulties.

Has it gone off the rails?

It's run into the sand. There are two ways in which it's got nowhere. One is that the vagueness of the aspirations has got bogged down in the piles of web-pages of experiences and outcomes which, far from freeing teachers to experiment and develop their own courses, is far more prescriptive than anything that has ever been done before in Scotland. More depressing is the proposed exam structure. It's more conventional than Standard grade; it's less imaginative than some of the Advanced Higher ideas that have evolved over the past few years. It's incredibly boring. None of the big principles of cross-disciplinary or learning how to apply knowledge to the world will, as far as I can see, be assessed.

What needs to be done to deliver CfE for the next crop of pupils?

Provide clear guidance which could be achieved by following through the examples of the Excellence Working Groups that reported in spring 2011. We need a better way of bringing teachers together and of structuring their CPD. We have a good working example in the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre - that structure of CPD, nationally provided, and funded by the 32 local authorities is what's needed in all areas of the curriculum.

What have been the main weaknesses in implementation?

The whole thing just vanished into this plethora of bureaucracy. The key mistake was not to provide central guidance and centralised schemes that would bring teachers together with appropriate experts in industry, universities, whatever, to enable them to do it.

At whose feet would you lay the blame?

The entire political leadership class.

Is the view from George Square better than the one from Moray House?

It's different. The advantage of being in George Square in a romantic sense is the sense of being in a place which has a direct allegiance back to the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, which is still Scotland's major contribution to the life of the mind.


Born: Hamilton, 1956

Education: Tain Royal Academy; MA,University of Aberdeen; PhD in statistics, University of Edinburgh.

Career: Lecturer - specialised in statistics in medical epidemiology at Heriot-Watt University - researched the effects of exposure to lead on children's development; Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh, 1995-August 2012; now in the School of Social and Political Science.

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