Working together to train better teachers;Platform;Opinion

10th September 1999 at 01:00
Respect, consensus and negotiation are the watchwords in an age of partnership, say Rae Stark and Graham White THE Scottish Parliament, it is claimed, heralds a new style of politics based on a notion of partnership where mutual respect, consensus and negotiation are to be the watchwords. This would therefore seem an appropriate moment to review the existing partnerships in initial teacher education and to determine how best they can support the teaching profession in Scotland as we move into the next millennium.

The number of partnerships reflects the range of interests involved. The relationships between the Scottish Office, the General Teaching Council and the higher education institutions (HEIs) focus on the structural elements of initial teacher education at a national level with a view to maximising quality and equity across the system.

At the local level, the HEIs, schools and local authorities are required to plan jointly for school experience placements, the main aim of which is "to provide a practical context for the acquisition and development of the competences", according to Scottish Office guidelines. This requires that the roles of the various partners be determined and, in addition, that "the school in which the school experience is undertaken will have a clear role in the assessment of students".

Many local partnerships focus on the management and organisation of school experience and aim to ensure well-defined arrangements for the development of teaching skills in relevant, practical contexts. The majority of teachers feel comfortable with this and it is the most appropriate method of developing initial teaching competencies in a structured fashion.

Another "partnership" exists among the traditional triad of student teacher, supervising teacher and HEI tutor. This one is primarily concerned with issues at what has been described as the "action" level - the day-to-day interactions, classroom relationships and activities through which the student develops into the competent beginning teacher.

The degree of responsibility each partner holds in the process can be somewhat ill-defined. The arrangement is essentially one of "gift-giving" on the part of teachers, and schools and institutions are reluctant to make more specific demands on supervising teachers, such as that they be trained or provided with formal staff development activities related to student supervision. Indeed in the recent past when such demands have been raised it has been pointed out that this makes a significant impact on teacher workload.

This partnership is usually based on an agreed set of requirements incorporating increasingly complex tasks as students progress within and across placements. However, the research evidence indicates that the teacher's priority remains with the children rather than the student.

In response to the guidelines for teacher education courses, teachers have been increasingly involved in the assessment of students in various ways, with some asked to grade students on an A-E scale relatively early in the course. It is often argued that the supervising teacher, who works closely with the student on a day-to-day basis, is in a better position to observe a "typical" performance than a tutor who visits two or three times during a placement.

Repeatedly, however, research into teachers as supervisors has indicated that when class teachers are evaluating or assessing students, they are reluctant to be critical and tend to avoid making negative remarks, In consequence, there is often a lack of substantive discussion of the issues involved.

Teachers have indicated strongly that the responsibility for making the appropriate assessments against nationally agreed standards lies with the tutor. Teachers are more than willing to contribute to the assessment of students in a diagnostic or analytical role but less confident when it comes to assigning a particular grade to the particular stage of students' development.

If accurate and reliable assessment of students is to be required of all teachers then the issue of consistency has to be addressed. The education institutions expend considerable effort in maximising consistency across tutors: if teacher assessment is to be taken fully into account and given equal weight in the final grading of students then a considerable investment will have to be made in staff development.

The recent report by Deloitte and Touche commissioned by the Scottish Office and the General Teaching Council concluded that the hidden costs of initial teacher education, borne by both schools and education institutions, amounted to something in excess of pound;6.3 million. If such funds were available to be managed, invested and accounted for in an explicit, rational manner, they could be used to establish a system of partnership which made clear the demands on each of the partners rather than drawing on their (finite) goodwill.

We believe that mutual respect, consensus and negotiation should be the watchwords of school-faculty partnerships as much as parliamentary collaborations. However, equity within a partnership means an identification of roles and responsibilities which reflects the strengths of each partner and how each can best contribute to the development of effective, competent beginning teachers.

Neither of the partners should hold the ultimate power of decision-making: the best decision on students' performance and progress will be made by ensuring that these are negotiated and agreed between the partners, with each bringing their particular professional knowledge to bear.

Rae Stark is a vice-dean in the faculty of education at Jordanhill campus of Strathclyde University. Graham White is course director of the PGCE (Primary) course on the same campus. Both write in a personal capacity.

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