Who's teaching who?

5th May 2000 at 01:00
The future of Scotland's schools is too important to be decided by political tinkering, says Douglas Weir.

WOULD you be happy boarding a train whose driver was not licensed to travel the route you were embarking on? Would you let a neurosurgeon operate on your lungs? Would you let a teacher qualified in history teach your child French? Presumably most people would immediately respond "no". Nevertheless, in a relatively quiet launch of a consultation on the Schools (Scotland) Code, the Executive is making precisely that proposition, and more.

There is no doubt that since the code was introduced in 1956 it has become seriously outdated. There are better ways of regulating the nature and size of classes, the nature and size of the teaching force, and the nature and size of the management team in a school. From that point of view this consultation is welcome.

There is also no doubt that the deployment of the teaching force is too heavily constrained. I have argued in these pages and elsewhere that the considerable changes in curriculum, primary and secondary, require us to reconsider how teachers can best help pupils to achieve high-quality learning. In that respect also the consultation is welcome. And there is no doubt that management structures in schools often stifle innovation and experimentation.

What is peculiar, however, is the manner in which the Executive has now chosen to review such issues. A consultation on the code seems a poor alternative to a full debate involving all the relevant partners such as parents, authorities, teacher unions and teacher education. Inevitably, therefore, the suspicious among us search for the hidden agenda.

The proposal that a number of schools have the same headteacher might be an attempt to deal with the shortage of suitable applicants. But it might also be a device to reduce the number and influence of headteachers. The recent history of David Blunkett's "superheads" is not encouraging.

Allowing local variation might well reduce bureaucracy and restore the primacy of curriculum over management. But it might merely be an attempt to recruit more teachers to shortage subjects or difficult schools by enabling authorities to offer inducements. The initial recruitment to guidance posts after 1971 or the "golden hellos" in England would suggest that such a short-term expedient can do long-term damage.

Removing the distinction between "practical" and other subjects, especially in the secondary school, could be applauded when so many subjects now require methodologies which are so demanding on teachers that a class of 30 is too many. But removing the distinction might simply be a device for letting the average class size drift upwards.

Similrly, the proposal to end the upper limit on composite classes, especially in the primary school, might lead to schools determining for themselves the best configuration of teaching groups. It might equally become an attack on pupil-teacher ratios or a device for taking more teachers out of classrooms and giving them "non-teaching" duties.

The proposals which are of greatest concern, however, are in the area of who is qualified to teach what. In this area, the Executive makes three significant proposals. First, more FE lecturers could teach in secondary schools. Second, more primary teachers could teach in secondary schools. Third, more secondary teachers could teach subjects for which they are not formally qualified.

But the timing and manner of these proposals will create suspicion. At present there is still an excess of applicants over places for primary teacher education, and a shortage for many secondary subjects. It would therefore be very convenient for the Executive to increase the quota of primary trainees and deploy some of them in secondary schools. Similarly there is a concern in the General Teaching Council over primary and secondary teachers delivering curriculum elements for which their competence has not been assessed by any independent body such as a teacher education institution. Removing the categories of teacher qualification would make registration no more than an assessment of beginning competence (and a poor one at that).

There are distinct differences in the methodologies of primary, secondary and further education teaching. There are even methodological differences between subjects. The experienced teacher who crosses sector or subject boundaries needs to be aware of these differences, and be supervised, trained and assessed for making that transition. The beginning teacher needs to have that training and supervision built into the programme of initial teacher education.

If the Executive is suggesting that these sector and subject transitions do not involve some role for the General Teaching Council and teacher education institutions, the clock would be set back almost 40 years. If it does envisage General Teaching Council and teacher education institution involvement, it should have chosen a better means of enlisting their support.

The uncharitable conclusion is that the Executive is attempting to defuse resistance to change. The charitable conclusion is that all the consultations will eventually come together in a coherent national debate in which we can all take part. But until we see all the pieces of the jigsaw, we cannot make sense of the Executive's picture.

Professor Douglas Weir is dean of the education faculty at Strathclyde University.

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