Poor outcomes are not all due to bad doormen

21st March 2008 at 00:00
Sir Tom Hunter, the billionaire philanthropist, has started a healthy debate about strategies to improve the effectiveness of Scottish education. He believes that a cause of poor teaching lies in the alleged fact that unsuitable individuals enter teacher training in the first place.

Selection at the point of entry to training programmes occurs in several professional contexts, but Sir Tom mistakenly assumes that weaknesses exist in the admissions to teacher education only, and that they could be eradicated by the application of psychometric testing to recruitment.

Currently, most teacher training institutions require a good record of past academic achievements and prior experience of successfully working with children, complemented by a range of desirable candidate qualities.

These qualities fall into two overlapping categories: abilities such as motivation, coping strategies, critical thinking, self-awareness and commitment to personal growth, which can predict student success in the programme; and qualities such as interpersonal effectiveness, integrity, stability, adaptability, warmth, empathy, openness and acceptance, which indicate a solid foundation for teacher effectiveness.

Selection panels acknowledge the difficulty of identifying these qualities with precision, and recognise that traditional selection procedures do not always yield an accurate reflection of a candidate's skills, abilities or personality traits.

We should, however, proceed with caution when suggestions to subject prospective student teachers to psychometric testing are adumbrated.

Rather than penetrating deeply into an individual's mind and soul, tests only provide a snapshot of one's aptitude and personality at a specific testing session. Furthermore, as is known, preparation can help candidates become test wise and thus improve their score.

Not only can test results be distorted in this way, they can also be misinterpreted by admissions staff lacking rigorous training in the proper use of the tests they are administering. One related point is that, in some quarters, psychometric testing has degenerated from being a scientific operation to a commercial, profit-driven enterprise, which has resulted in the quality of several of the tests in use being variable.

It should also be noted that off-the-shelf tests are too generic to pinpoint desirable qualities specific to any one profession, while bespoke tests are ineffective unless they have been through a rigorous process of standardisation, which can take years.

Consequently, gatekeepers of the teaching profession are better off continuing to select prospective student teachers as they do now.

Meanwhile, all of us with a stake in education, Sir Tom included, may need to look elsewhere for the underlying causes of poor teaching. As HMIE consistently finds, schools serving similar catchments can perform very differently: this suggests that the context is about issues of culture, not necessarily deficits within individuals.

Christopher Holligan is a senior lecturer in education and Lisa McAuliffe is a lecturer in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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