Talk tough, act soft on teacher training

17th October 2003 at 01:00
The news release announcing the second stage of the review of initial teacher education made interesting reading. It might be described as an example of discursive flannel - that is, a statement that strives to satisfy all potential readers while not saying anything of real significance.

Of course it would be unreasonable to expect the announcement to anticipate the results of the inquiry but, equally, the terms of reference should have a degree of internal coherence. As it is, they point in several directions, each of which appeals to a different audience.

Traditional teachers, distrustful of theory and sceptical about the value of research, will welcome the focus on discipline and classroom management.

This runs the risk of encouraging a narrow and inward-looking view of preparation for teaching, in which social control is given too much weight.

Such an approach may serve to contain pupil disaffection for a while, but it will not address its underlying causes.

Potential students, especially those with family commitments and those who live some distance from the training institutions, will appreciate the openness to new patterns of provision, including part-time study and distance learning. Already courses attract substantial numbers of mature entrants who bring an interesting range of experience to the work of schools.

The focus on entry requirements, standards and guidelines will provide a field day for the bean counters of the policy community who enjoy drawing up lists of criteria, and establishing rules only they can understand and negotiate. I predict many happy hours of pointless discussion of this kind.

In his ministerial statement accompanying the announcement, Peter Peacock said he wanted the review group to "think innovatively", and "consider proposals for radical change if that is what is needed". Why then is there no reference to the possibility of inter-professional training which both the social inclusion agenda and the professed desire for "joined up government" would seem to point to?

Related to this, who are the people charged with leading us into the Brave New World of initial teacher education? There are several of the usual suspects, familiar to students of Scottish policy-making - two deans of faculties of education, two directors of education, two senior civil servants within the Scottish Executive Education Department. This fondness for dynamic duos is reminiscent of Noah's Ark. Can we expect the deluge to follow?

However, not all the members come in pairs. There is the registrar of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, an organisation whose expansionist tendencies post-McCrone are worthy of close scrutiny. There are also representatives of the Educational Institute of Scotland and the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, as well as a university vice-principal with a background in teacher education in England. It could be claimed that English teacher education is arguably the worst in Europe, still trying to recover from the ill-judged pronouncements of Chris Woodhead.

Let me make it clear that, as individuals, these people (several of whom I know personally) are hard-working and committed to the improvement of Scottish education. My point, however, is that the professional and institutional baggage they will bring to bear on the task, and the bureaucratic constraints under which they will be required to operate, will set definite limits to the kind of thinking that will emerge from the review exercise.

If the minister really wanted to encourage radical proposals he should have included one or two "wild cards" from outside the usual lists of those thought worthy of patronage. But in post-devolution Scotland we still prefer to talk about changing things rather than actually doing anything.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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