Teacher training needs more than a quick fix

9th March 2001 at 00:00
Protecting funding and boosting links with schools and authorities would do more to enhance quality than 50 short-term reviews, says Gordon Kirk

The McCrone agreement made provision for a review of initial teacher education (ITE) and the Scottish Executive now seeks views on its proposals for implementing that part of the deal.

What is envisaged is a two-stage affair: a longer term review that will follow a Green Paper on education in Scotland, which may well point to the need for significant changes to the design of ITE programmes; and, second, a "short, focused early examination of some key aspects" - those suggested by McCrone and other dubious or undisclosed sources, which require swift remediation before the start of next session.

On the face of it, that approach seems sensible. If major changes are to be presaged by the paper and the great debate it will engender, it would be odd if there were no consequential changes required in initial teacher education.

Indeed, some of us have been maintaining for some time that there is a need to bring teacher education into alignment with changing conceptions of schooling and the changing responsibilities of teachers.

Similarly, if there are indeed urgent matters that require immediate attention, it would surely be irresponsible to ignore these: to assume that they should be incorporated into the longer term review would be to invite the charge that, for the convenience of all concerned, the ball was being kicked into the long grass. Are we, then, to applaud the resolve to secure "immediate improvements"?

First, it is astonishing that the Executive should claim to be so totally in the dark about teacher education provision that it needs to conduct an exercise whose aim is to "map current programme structures and practice", and to provide "a clear picture of how teachers are educated at present".

Second, notwithstanding that apparent ignorance, there are surprisingly confident assertions about the remedies now required. The letter intimating the review affirms that it will "recommend action for giving regular classroom experience to ITE teaching staff". The Education Minister "wants, in particular, to see a more practical emphasis", particularly with regard to "discipline and management skills", but "without jettisoning the academic elements of existing qualifications".

Third, the letter is surprisingly hectoring in tone. Despite thecommitment to "inclusive debate", the impression is conveyed that certain changes, already clear in the official mind, will be forced on teacher education institutes (TEIs) willy-nilly. This kind of autocratic heavy-handedness, thinly disguised as an independent review, is no way to sustain commitment to the enhancement of the quality of teacher education.

Finally, it is alarming that there are people in authority who actually believe that there are quick-fix solutions to the problems they claim to have identified: student placements, partnership arrangements, classroom experience of ITE teaching staff, ICT, classroom behaviour management and special educational needs.

Taking placement and partnership together, as we must, there is a widespread consensus on the importance of the collaboration established between TEIs, schools and authorities. All a review will do is confirm that the provision of adequate resources is imperative, especially in view of the projected substantial rise in ITE numbers. Nor is the intended review, in such a short time-scale (March to June), likely to resolve the complex question of the professional experience and background of TEI staff. Currently, all staff involved in the theory and practice of teaching must be registered with the GTC, and all are. In addition, all TEIs have developed schemes for seconding staff from schools.

No doubt, more flexible patterns of staff exchange could be developed, but these need to be seen in the context of partnership agreements between TEIs and authorities.

The three so-called "content areas" are just as problematic. At each successive revision of the mandatory guidelines yet further requirements are stipulated, with the result that hardly anything in existing programmes attracts the attention it deserves. That is why there is a need to look at the overall structure as part of a longer term review.

There are, however, two measures that would significantly improve existing provision. First, the minister might use his influence to dissuade the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council from making huge cuts in the resources for teacher education. Second, he could provide additional resources for the proper funding of partnership.

By these two measures more could be done for the quality of teacher education than 50 short-term reviews.

Professor Gordon Kirk is dean of the education faculty at Edinburgh University.

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