Wanted: a staffing strategy

4th July 1997 at 01:00
Douglas Weir calls for greater flexibility in funding trainingto avert teacher shortages

I work in a university that values the rotation of senior posts by election. To those, like myself, from a college of education where posts are filled by interview leading to permanent appointment, this is a novel experience. Already, within four years, we are adjusting well to the rotational model and can see benefits that could easily be extended to the rest of the education service. One benefit is that you are elected at least three months before starting the post, which gives time for some strategic thinking as well as the chance to be inducted into the new post by your predecessor.

To take on the post of dean of the faculty of education at the Jordanhill campus of Strathclyde University at any time is daunting. To take it on when a new government has recently been elected and when we await the report of the Dearing committee of inquiry into higher education is particularly daunting.

Over the years, Jordanhill has been proud of its teacher education but also of its contribution to speech therapy, social work, community education and further education. It was delighted to have survived the closure of the Scottish School of Physical Education and to re-establish a reputation in related fields.

Since the merger with the University of Strathclyde, the faculty has added new degrees in applied music, health studies, educational studies and early childhood studies. It has also contributed courses to the faculty of arts and social sciences. And there has been a rapid increase in postgraduate programmes, culminating in the launch of Scotland's first doctorate in education programme last September.

Only 47 per cent of our students are in initial teacher education. This is a trend towards diversification which will continue, partly driven by our own traditions and ambitions, partly driven by necessity.

But the post-1993 rationalisation of higher education and the arrival of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council has created problems for the former colleges of education, most of which are now in or nearly in established universities.

First, the state funding for higher education comes in two parts - teaching and research - but because the criteria for measuring research do not value professional disciplines, all former colleges of education have no or less research funding than in 1992 and are pegged at these levels for the next five years. This restricts us from developing the knowledge base in our discipline. That is compounded by the fact that the major source of external funding for research, the Scottish Office Industry and Education Department, does not contribute to institutional indirect overheads in the same way as other government departments and external bodies.

Second, the funding council's allowance for teaching is not flexible as in other disciplines; when trainee teacher numbers fall, there is no longer slack in the system that can absorb them. We can try to increase non-teacher education numbers at our own expense, in the hope that funding council will eventually fund them so long as this does not conflict with the "consolidation" policy of government. Then when teacher education intakes rise, we have committed staff to these new courses and have to resort to the difficult expedient of short-term temporary appointments to deliver the teacher-education courses. Purposeful appointments of a strategic nature are therefore difficult.

Third, the larger faculties and colleges have the aspiration to run courses to meet the needs of the whole primary curriculum and all subjects at secondary level. This is increasingly difficult if specialist topics or subjects cannot attract viable groups and cannot therefore be run cost-effectively. Jordanhill's decision to drop home economics in 199798 has caused much concern, and other subjects may be vulnerable in future.

On the one hand, colleges and faculties of education are expected to conform to the funding council's regimes for making efficiency gains and responding to market forces, but, on the other hand, are expected to meet contradictory Scottish Office criteria on the numbers and balance of teacher education intakes.

The Government needs advice on how to ensure that the relevant balance and number of student teachers are being trained. That advice is crucial when you project five years ahead. The age profile of Scottish teachers, especially in secondary schools, makes it clear that around the turn of the century we face a considerable turnover and possible shortages of staff.

The tradition of Scottish education is of partnership across the whole community, involving national and local government, teachers and parents. The new Government values such partnerships and we can, therefore, look forward with some confidence to a more rational approach to, for example, teacher education.

My hopes are that the partnership between the Scottish Office and the teacher education institutions will be based on a number of principles. These would include a rethink on the resourcing models, a continuing development of co-operation between schools and teacher education, and a confirmation that teachers should make a commitment to, and be supported in, lifelong professional development. All of these hopes cost money. But a government that has, as its priority, education must surely find that money.

The resourcing model for teacher education now needs varying by the funding council or a different approach to student quotas needs to be taken. This means either giving a slightly higher weighting to such courses to compensate for our lack of control over the rise and fall of intakes, or using some greater degree of annual smoothing of student numbers to help with forward planning. The first is probably easier since the second would occasionally lead to unemployed or underemployed teachers. That could only be dealt with by funding schools to over-recruit on staffing from time to time - highly desirable but difficult to police.

The co-operation between schools and teacher education is well-established, though it can still be improved, but such increased co-operation would not reduce costs. Almost no one in Scotland wishes to see totally school-based initial training, and so any co-operation would leave teacher education institutions with the lead role. But greater co-operation would make it easier to deploy staff in a dual role - school and teacher education - and to vary the balance between the two roles as circumstances require.

The best of all devices would be to strengthen the lifelong learning expectations of teachers. By ensuring that induction and in-service programmes had more accreditation and more teacher education institution input (in partnership with schools) the overall volume of work would increase, making it easier for teacher education institutions to cope with rise and fall in any one of the three phases: initial, induction, in-service.

There is clear evidence that quality teacher education is a vital contributor to quality schooling. At Jordanhill we look forward to working with all our partners in improving both teachers and schools.

Professor Douglas Weir takes over as dean of the Faculty of Education at Strathclyde University in August.

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