Now that the mentors are gone

7th June 1996 at 01:00
Raymond Robertson, the Education Minister, has placed on teacher education institutions a responsibility to take forward with schools the concept of closer partnership in teacher education.

While the institutions deliberate with the General Teaching Council on what form this partnership will take, St Andrew's College set about rebuilding relationships with schools. It made a successful bid for Scottish Office funding originally earmarked for mentor training and used this to host a series of meetings with schools to clarify and improve its procedures for teacher education on the Post Graduate Certificate of Education (Secondary). This was not partnership on a grand scale but a small initiative with a tight focus. Nevertheless, its success might give some pointers to the council's deliberations.

When the college was asked in January to spearhead this initiative it was informed that funding had to be spent by March 31 before the demise of the former regional authorities. Apart from the short notice, we were concerned that teachers would not be interested in teacher education in the post-mentoring climate, particularly in the two months when schools are preoccupied with examination requirements.

We decided to seek advice from a small group of senior managers in schools. That advice was remarkably succinct: teachers will make an out-of-school commitment at this time of year only if they perceive a direct immediate and practical benefit. Headteachers will agree to their absence if there are cover arrangements. This advice set the tone for the invitations to schools and for the format and content of the meetings. Meetings took various forms and involved principal teachers, senior teachers, students, regents and assistant headteachers. In all, during March, about 120 teachers from schools within the central belt of Scotland gave up at least a day to discuss teacher education issues with a range of tutors at the college.

The Scottish Office requires that teacher training and assessment take place within a framework of competences introduced in 1993 without any staff development. Three years on, there is still unease among tutors and teachers about the interpretation of these competences, and the procedures governing their use. How does one assess, never mind grade, a student's commitment to the moral and spiritual well-being of pupils? Are some competences more important than others? Who is the appropriate person to complete the student's report at the end of a placement: the principal teacher or the student regent? How does the teacher education institution arrive at final grades for a student?

An increasing number of students are now mature, have family responsibilities, and are likely to have had previous careers. Students are fully aware of job competition and, because of previous work experience, know how to deal with it. If a tutor says "You are lacking competence in that area", students are likely to ask "What is your evidence for saying that"? And if factual evidence is not available to back up such a judgment, they are not slow to follow through whatever procedures are available to reverse it.

The question at the centre of the meetings with schools was how to ensure consistency in the quality of training and in the grading system as student teachers move between the teacher education institution and several schools throughout their course? Consistency in standards and grades, which is difficult enough to ensure within the teacher education institution, is even more difficult to achieve in schools where individual departments may only occasionally have a student. The first outcome from the meetings was a simple agreement on changes in the report form for assessing school experience. A range of descriptive words and phrases was identified for each grade. By considering which of these might be applied to a student in each area of competence, the tutor or teacher should find it easier to decide an appropriate grade.

But that is only half the story. We carry in our heads different expectations for such words as excellent, committed, hard working, expectations which are influenced by the context. For example, a student may cope well when they spend a great deal of time with a small Higher class revising for their exams. The same student may prove to be quite incompetent when they have to manage several second-year classes doing practical work. Which context should influence the student's report more?

It was agreed that the St Andrew's report form should try to capture some understanding of the range and size of classes that the student has taught over the school experience. But what about when a student is coping only because the teacher has applied artificial external controls over the class, such as extracting potential troublemakers? Clearly, achieving consistency in standards and grades requires far greater collaboration between tutors and teachers than can be achieved by improving the report form.

The emphasis has previously been on assessing the student (the so-called "crit lesson"). A small group of principal teachers agreed to view the same student lessons as the visiting tutors and to join in tripartite discussions with the student and tutor after the lesson. This discussion would set the student realistic targets for the remainder of the school experience. The principal teacher would try to create opportunities for the student to overtake these targets.

The principal teachers agreed that viewing a student's lesson with the tutor made the tutor's visit more worth while. The tripartite discussions had led to a better understanding of the standards and grading system and the setting of targets had given a sharper focus to the student's training. It was acknowledged that targets, important for all students to ensure continuing professional growth, become essential for "poor" students, who must be given sufficient warning of areas requiring development and opportunities to work on them. Otherwise, the teacher education institution may be accused of not addressing student needs. Training and assessment must go hand in hand. Completing reports on a student teacher is no longer something that can be done by the principal teacher after the student has left the school.

There has always been ambivalence about sharing previous reports on a student with their next school, particularly if the reports contain negative comments. However, if a student is to be given proper time and support to meet targets, then all previous reports must be passed to the next school as soon as possible after the student's arrival. St Andrew's has undertaken to advise students that they will be expected to do this in the future. In addition, students will be asked to begin a dialogue by producing their own professional profile and proposing appropriate targets for their next school experience.

How does a department develop an understanding of what is an appropriate standard at each point in the course when it has a "good" student in term one in one session and no other student until a "poor" student arrives in term three in the following session? How does one assess a term one student against a competence statement intended to describe the beginning teacher at the end of the course? What can reasonably be expected of a term one student as opposed to a term two student? In an attempt to answer such questions, the college has produced a profile of the "competent" student for each school experience of the PGCE (Secondary) course. These will be piloted next session to see if they help identify the progress students should demonstrate at each stage.

Shiona McDonald and David Gibson are on the staff of St Andrew's College of Education, Bearsden.

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