University teacher education courses have been criticised by students for failing to link the theory taught in lecture theatres with the practical experience gained in schools. Conversely, schools have been lambasted for the variable quality of placements.
Now two Scottish universities have decided to do something about this age-old bone of contention. They are offering teachers the chance to work in their schools of education for up to two years in a bid to improve partnership working between universities and schools around training new teachers. If the scheme is successful, the universities say, it should lead to a more seamless experience for students as they move between campus and classroom.
This academic year, teachers seconded from local schools make up more than 10 per cent of tutors and lecturers in the University of Strathclyde’s School of Education – Scotland’s largest teacher education institution. The university took on nine primary and secondary teachers in August; the University of Glasgow took on five, including one primary head.
Fresh from the chalkface
Professor David Kirk, head of Strathclyde’s School of Education, explains: “Part of [Professor Graham] Donaldson’s Teaching Scotland’s Future report was about schools taking an equal share of responsibility for educating teachers. But schools can’t do that by osmosis – teachers can’t overnight have the skills base they need to have that extended responsibility.
“This scheme is a way of bringing teachers into universities and giving them a view of teacher education, and they will take that knowledge back into the system.”
He points out that there are also benefits for the university in having teachers fresh from the chalkface engaging with students. “The challenge that every teacher educator faces is that the longer they are out of practice and in university, the more the currency of their knowledge starts to erode,” he says.
“They undoubtedly develop other skills and they are in schools regularly but they are not doing the daytime job of the teacher. These secondees coming in provide that relevant, up-to-date knowledge and experience of being a teacher. That has gone down well with our students.”
News of the scheme comes as a report into the progress made since 2011, when Teaching Scotland’s Future was published, reveals that schools are getting better at supporting students on placement (see box, above).
However, concerns remain about whether school placements are as effective as they could be, the Ipsos Mori researchers found. Teachers and heads continue to lack information about what student teachers are covering on their courses, where they are in their learning and how they should communicate any concerns that they have about students..
Many believe that deeper partnerships between councils and universities is the key to improving initial teacher education. Indeed, Donaldson has called for “a strong and mutual partnership between the school and the university, the teacher and the tutor” when it comes to educating new teachers.
While student teachers find placements in school the best preparation for teaching, Donaldson found that 23 per cent of primary teachers who had qualified in the past 10 years reported variable or very poor experiences.
And, in September last year, Education Scotland reported on how university-council partnerships were developing. There was still too much variability in the knowledge and skills base of the teachers who were working with student teachers, inspectors said.
The majority of students felt that their mentors were inadequately trained, with 41 per cent saying that teachers had “a little training”, “very little training”, or “no training at all”.
The seconded teachers were doing what other teacher educators at the universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde do: teaching students in their area of expertise, visiting students out on placement and helping with the selection process to teacher education courses.
At present, three teachers who work for East Dunbartonshire Council are taking part in the scheme – two at Strathclyde and one at Glasgow (see case studies of Debbie McLeod and Kandi Higgins, above).
The experience that these teachers will bring back from their time spent at university will be invaluable, says Edith Girvan, the quality improvement officer responsible for partnerships, placements and probation at East Dunbartonshire. And the insight that they have gained into initial teacher education will be spread across the authority.
“We need to work together in partnership [with universities] and share what we are doing so we get the very best teachers coming out,” Girvan says. “At the end of the day, it’s about making sure the teachers coming out of teacher education and entering our schools are of a high quality.”
All the teachers who are currently seconded to the universities have opted to stay for two years rather than returning to school after 12 months. For some, like June Pisaneschi, a primary teacher from Glasgow, this will mean sacrificing their former jobs (see case study, above).
The three teachers who TESS spoke to are full of praise for the initiative: one describes it as “invigorating”; another says it has given her “a fresh new look”. They are relishing the opportunity to visit a wide variety of schools and see what is happening in colleagues’ classrooms, stepping outside their own “bubble”.
These staff would always have done their best to support student teachers, but as modern languages teacher Higgins points out, “When you know more, you can do more.”
And that goes for the increasing understanding between schools and universities, too.
School placements improve – but there’s a way to go
Scottish schools are getting better at supporting student teachers on placement, research reveals.
The proportion of new teachers who rate the support that they receive from schools when on placement as “very effective” has risen substantially, from 28 per cent in 2010 to 41 per cent in 2015.
New teachers are now far more enthusiastic about the support that they receive from schools on placement than the support that they receive from universities – which only 20 per cent rate as “very effective”.
The researchers write: “This is perhaps to be expected, given that students work with teachers on a daily basis while on placement.”
However, there is plenty of scope to improve students’ school placement experience, the researchers find. They call for universities and councils to work more closely to deliver high-quality school placements.
The findings are contained in a report published last month about the implementation of Professor Graham Donaldson’s recommendations for teacher education in Teaching Scotland’s Future. As part of the report, Ipsos Mori researchers surveyed more than 900 teachers who had qualified in the past five years about their experiences of initial teacher education.
Case study: Kandi Higgins
Kandi Higgins is a French and German teacher at Bishopbriggs Academy in East Dunbartonshire and has been teaching for 21 years
Higgins loves teaching and has never gone for promotion because that would mean less time in the classroom. But when the email about the secondments landed in her inbox, it gave her goosebumps.
“I’m still enthusiastic about my job even after all these years,” she says. “Being able to help support and bring on new teachers, I just thought, ‘I would love that.’ ”
Higgins joined the University of Strathclyde in August and has found the secondment invigorating. Teaching students about pedagogy and facilitating discussions about inclusion and the rights of the child has made her reflect on her own practice.
She always did her best for students on placement, but teaching can be “very full on”, she says; the experience has reminded her of the importance of making time for trainee teachers.
“I hope that I would always have done my best for student teachers but when you know more, you can do more,” Higgins adds.
Case study: Debbie McLeod
Debbie McLeod is principal teacher of biology at Douglas Academy in East Dunbartonshire and has been teaching for 15 years
Before McLeod arrived at the University of Strathclyde, she had assumed that initial teacher education courses would be a few years behind what was actually happening in schools, but she has discovered that university staff have their finger on the pulse.
She sees her secondment as a golden opportunity to go back to her roots and talk about why she loves teaching. After being steeped in curricular change, the experience has given her “a fresh new look”, she says.
A highlight has been going into a wide variety of schools to assess students on placement and being inspired by what she has seen.
McLeod says she will return to school with a better appreciation of just how capable student teachers are and how much schools can learn from them.
She adds: “There’s not much money for CPD, and sometimes staff in schools just teach their class and their subject and are in a bit of a bubble. This has let me take a step back and appreciate there is a lot going on out there.”
Case study: June Pisaneschi
June Pisaneschi is a teacher at Cuthbertson Primary School in Glasgow and has been teaching for 10 years
When Pisaneschi finishes her secondment at the University of Strathclyde, she will be guaranteed a job in Glasgow, but not at her old school – her role there was held open for only 12 months and she has decided to stay on at the university for two years. But this doesn’t bother her, as she says that it will give her the push that she needs to move forward in her career.
Pisaneschi has always had an interest in teacher education and was midway through a postgraduate certificate in how to support teacher learning when the opportunity to be seconded to the university came up.
“It was mostly the opportunity to inspire new teachers that attracted me,” she says.
“There’s a tendency for teachers to become tired in the profession. But if you can get influenced by someone who recognises the opportunity in teaching from an early stage, you can become inspired.”
Pisaneschi says that this was her experience when she was a student teacher at Strathclyde.
She would like to see structured support put in place for new teachers for a number of years after they qualify. “To be a teacher is a huge task and it requires lifelong learning,” she explains.