Who'd be a collaborator?

11th October 1996 at 01:00
Gordon Kirk looks at how schools can be involved in initial teacher education.

It is now widely acknowledged that effective teacher education should be based on the partnership principle: teacher education institutions and schools need to evolve patterns of close collaboration. The General Teaching Council's working party is currently examining what partnership entails and the most appropriate forms of partnership for enhancing the quality of teacher education in Scotland. It is hoped that the working party will come forward with proposals that can command wide professional support.

The issue is not a purely Scottish one for in North America, Australia, Europe and elsewhere the same debate is being conducted. Indeed, by now the literature of teacher education contains numerous examples of what has been called "collaborative partnership". While these have not been developed on a national scale in any country, their supporters consider them to be fruitful. These approaches to "collaborative partnership" share several features.

First, there is an acknowledgement that the teacher education institution and the school have important but distinctive contributions to make to teacher education. The contribution of the school is to provide the student with close and continuing supervision and to make it possible for the student to access the "craft" knowledge of the teacher, the sheer professional insight that a teacher accumulates through countless engagements with learners. On the other hand, the higher education institution has the responsibility to ensure that the students' work is illuminated by theoretical perspectives on teaching and learning, motivation, assessment and other matters.

Besides, work in the higher education institution ought to familiarise the student with insights that are to be derived from research on the theory and practice of education. An important feature of that work should involve the student in the analysis of the context in which education is conducted in contemporary society. The key principle here is complementarity: the contributions of the school and the higher education institution complement each other rather than merely duplicate what the other provides.

A second feature is the recognition that there are benefits both for the school as well as for the higher education institution in partnership. We have some evidence, even in Scotland, that partnership does not function well when it is perceived merely as a one-way process. Higher education institutions can obviously benefit from a partnership in which they are able to secure appropriate placements for their students. Besides, their links with schools can revitalise their work and help to ensure that their research takes full account of, and relates to, the realities of the problems that are to be encountered in schools. For their part, schools can benefit by having opportunities for keeping in touch with developments in the curriculum and assessment; they can engage in joint research initiatives; and they can take advantage of the expertise that a higher education institution may have on school development planning, or school effectiveness, or other aspects of the life of schools.

The literature suggests that partnership works best when there are varied points of contact between a school and an institute of teacher education, and when teacher education is embedded in a network of collaborative initiatives which intensify interactions between the institutions concerned.

A third feature of successful partnership appears to be the sharing of power. Institutions of higher education learn to acknowledge that their programmes will be incomplete without the full involvement of schools. Schools are in a position to exert at least some degree of pressure on the teacher education institution to move towards the sharing of power, so that decisions about assessment, quality control and other matters are based on the principle of parity rather than on respect for traditional status distinctions in education. In other words, effective partnerships occur where the partners are equal.

In the Scottish context, that may appear an unlikely scenario. However, it has to be recognised that, while universities are autonomous institutions, the General Teaching Council for Scotland is also a statutory body, whose approval is necessary for all teacher education programmes. There is therefore, within that context, a genuine possibility of the kind of sharing of power that is considered to be essential.

The fourth feature is that there needs to be a formal mechanism through which collaborative activities will be planned, monitored and evaluated. Without such a mechanism, that is to say a properly constituted committee or group with clearly defined principles governing collaboration, it is difficult to see how equal partnership can be made to operate or patterns of accountability can be fully established. Moreover, our experience in this country strongly suggests that, in the absence of any such formal mechanism it is extremely difficult to obtain the level of communication and the sharing of understandings that are so essential if college-based studies and school-based activities are to be properly co-ordinated.

Finally, the evidence suggests that collaborative partnerships of the kind under consideration require to be properly resourced. Those involved in such initiatives have repeatedly urged that this approach to teacher education is not simply a way of making economies. Indeed, it represents a more expensive way of educating teachers. The additional expense is felt to be justified because the increased collaboration that is generated contributes significantly to the enhancement in the quality of the programme that is provided.

The various collaborative partnership initiatives have tended to operate on a relatively restricted basis. They have assumed that substantial investment of time and effort is required on behalf of the teacher education institution and collaborating schools and at a level which makes it impossible for these relationships to be fostered with all the schools within the vicinity of a higher education institution. This is likely to be problematic in Scotland for there is a widespread view here that all schools should be involved.

That principle can be acknowledged if it is also accepted that not all schools can be involved at the same time. If collaborative partnerships are to be introduced in Scotland, it will therefore be essential to find a way in which schools are able to opt into partnerships, possibly through a rolling programme, while at the same time recognising that no school should be permanently excluded.

Another of the features that requires comment in a Scottish context concerns resources. Too often in Scotland we have been encouraged to believe that the enrichment of partnership has to be done without additional resources. Such initiatives are supposed to have a "neutral effect" on resources. While concerns for efficiency and value for money are fully understandable, such attitudes can nevertheless engender strong opposition to any initiative simply because it is felt that those responsible for a new development have failed to take account of the demands that it will impose.

It would be extremely interesting if the GTC's working party encouraged us all to address the following question: assuming that the necessary resources could be made available to mount the kind of collaborative partnerships that have been described, would we be in favour of them?

Professor Gordon Kirk is principal of Moray House Institute of Education, Heriot-Watt University.

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