We can, and should, offer a world-class education

12th April 2013 at 01:00
An international summit made it clear that joint working between schools and universities is the key

In March, I was invited to attend the third in a series of international summits on the teaching profession run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). These summits bring together government ministers, union leaders and teachers from high-performing countries with the aim of sharing experience and views on how to provide world-class education. The focus is on teachers and teaching quality. The UK (Westminster) chose not to be represented by an official delegation.

A number of powerful themes emerged from the summit. There was strong agreement that schools should be seen as professional, not industrial, organisations. As one delegate put it, "teachers are in the frontline of society" and should therefore be central to educational policy and sustained improvement. Policy implications for the development of the teaching profession included: recruitment from high-performing students; a first-rate early experience including exposure to excellent schools and teachers; structured induction; career-long professional learning; formative teacher appraisal; explicit standards for teachers that stress positive values and are not narrowly behavioural; a collegiate approach to professional development; and inspection that supports improvement. Coaching and mentoring, learning rounds and other forms of peer review were seen as important features of a strong school culture.

The need for high-quality leadership was also a running theme. The practice of distributive leadership was widely supported, with an emphasis on the need for school leaders to see capacity-building across all staff as one of their top priorities.

All of this is familiar to us here in Scotland. It is widely represented in the work of the General Teaching Council, Education Scotland and the National Implementation Board. It also reflects much of what is increasingly happening in our schools, local authorities and universities and enjoys broad support from unions and professional associations. We are still some distance from where we need to get to, but if the thrust of this summit is correct we are certainly pointing in the right direction.

One of the challenges we face is to ensure that all student teachers have the kind of school experience that models the practice to which they should aspire in their future careers. The school component of teacher education should not simply be about time in classrooms but provide explicit models of excellent practice as well as a broad experience of school life. This stage of a teacher's education should set standards for career-long growth.

However, our past and even our present approach to "teaching practice" is somewhat haphazard. A number of schools and teachers do not seem to regard work with students as a central part of their responsibility to the future health of the profession. Some even see "taking a student" as helping the university rather than as a professional obligation.

We need to develop models of collaborative partnership between schools and universities within which teachers and university staff work together in a closer and more sustained way to support student learning. And that learning should be about much more than acquiring and practising specific classroom skills. We need to embed theory in practice and create a culture of reflection and inquiry as part of an approach to professional growth that starts in university and spans a career.

How do we do it? First, we need to ensure that the quality of the school experience for student teachers is high - modelling the kind of culture and practice that 21st-century teaching and learning demands. Our students should, wherever possible, be exposed to inspirational practice, showing what is desirable and possible. Participating in the formation of future teachers should be a matter of pride, and one of the hallmarks of a successful school.

Second, school and university staff should work as a team. More joint appointments and at least partial co-location in a school are likely to be part of making this a reality. Students will be concentrated in fewer schools, bringing significant benefits including greater collegiate learning. Assessment should be a shared responsibility, based on a broad range of experience and thus breaking the primacy accorded to the "crit lesson".

Third, the culture that is created should extend beyond the student to engage staff more widely in the kind of informed reflection that lies at the heart of sustained school improvement. An approach that has its roots in a better experience for our prospective teachers can grow into one of the ways in which career-long learning becomes a reality.

Is this simply a fanciful vision that will fall at the first hurdle of cold reality? Evidence to date, both nationally and internationally, suggests not. Where this kind of approach is being tried there seems to be strong support from students and, critically, from teachers and university staff in the schools concerned. Of course, there are serious issues to be addressed, not least to change a deeply embedded culture of separation of roles, of theory distant from practice and of experience trumping research. Logistical challenges are real but surely not insuperable.

The potential gains of a coherent approach to professional growth are substantial: for students, teachers, universities and, not least, for the young people in our schools. Student teachers are the seed-corn of a teaching profession whose importance to the future well-being of our society cannot be overestimated. The messages from the OECD summit suggest that we are on the right track. We know what is needed. Have we the energy, determination and creativity to see it through?

Graham Donaldson is a professor of education at the University of Glasgow and author of Teaching Scotland's Future.

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