A large minority of new primary teachers cannot say they are confident in their ability to teach key areas of the curriculum such as maths, reading and writing, new research suggests.
The Scottish government has found that many primary probationers lack confidence in teaching literacy and numeracy. Secondary probationers generally feel more confident in literacy in their subject, but have a similar lack of confidence in numeracy.
The area that probationer teachers are least confident in is data literacy – using data to improve practice or to track learner progress.
Developing resources is also “problematic” for probationer teachers, who find it hard to create “differentiated resources to meet the needs of all learners”, the study shows.
The Gathering Views on Probationer Teachers’ Readiness to Teach report – which included focus groups and an online survey completed by about 10 per cent of Scotland’s 2,386 2015-16 probationers – was compiled as part of the government’s efforts to monitor how the education system is performing via the National Improvement Framework. It was published in December.
Back to basics
The findings come after young teachers gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee last year, suggesting that some lack the numeracy skills to teach 11-year-olds at “a reasonable standard”.
MSPs also heard about wide variations in the time dedicated to literacy and numeracy teaching between different teacher-education institutions: for undergraduate primary teacher-education courses, anything from 48 hours to 173 hours was dedicated to literacy, depending on the institution. The range for numeracy was 44-89 hours.
Responding to the new research, Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith called for the teaching of literacy and numeracy to receive more focus in initial teacher education and for minimum entry requirements to be raised so that student teachers are required to have a Higher in maths, as well as English.
“Many teacher trainees are clear in their own mind that insufficient attention is being paid in teacher-training courses to instruction in how to teach literacy and numeracy. That is surely a matter of grave concern,” Ms Smith said. “If teachers themselves lack confidence, how can we expect young people to be confident?”
Labour education spokesman Iain Gray called for the government to take action to improve the situation, adding: “If one in five probationer teachers are not confident in teaching the most basic foundation skills, we have to worry about their confidence in other critical areas such as teaching science and technology. Clearly there is responsibility here with the universities delivering initial teacher education, but the education secretary [John Swinney] should be ensuring action is being taken to improve things.”
However, Professor Sue Ellis – a literacy expert based in the University of Strathclyde’s school of education – argued that asking probationer teachers how confident they felt about teaching key areas of the curriculum was a poor way to measure competence. She said: “You can be confident about something simply because you don’t recognise how complicated it is. What we need is a direct measure of impact – what progress do children in the classes of probationer teachers make?”
The figures suggest that probationers felt less confident about their ability to teach numeracy than literacy. However, the researchers say that the teachers responsible for supporting probationers – referred to in the report as “probationer supporters” – actually felt more positive about probationer teachers’ ability to teach numeracy, compared with literacy.
In particular, they highlighted probationers’ ability to teach reading and phonics as “an area of concern”.
The report continues: “Probationer supporters felt that the probationer teachers lacked the knowledge and skills to be able to support children’s reading development effectively.”
Some probationers commented on the positive experiences they had during initial teacher education. However, one said: “I received very little training or education on early literacy and the mechanics of learning to read.”
On numeracy, another said that during their postgraduate studies, “no examples of lessons or how to teach maths – for example, teaching mental or written mathematical strategies – was taught”.
Like Ms Smith, the report also suggests that upping the entry requirements to initial teacher education courses “may be worthy of further consideration”.
It also recommends that initial teacher education courses should include more practical examples of how to deliver the curriculum (see box, left) and that new teachers should be supported for longer.
Michael Wood, general secretary of the education directors’ body ADES, said that newly qualified teachers continued to develop during the probationary year and that the teachers supporting them in school could help to address any concerns. “The NQT year is designed to create time…to continue to develop key skills using approaches such as personal study, peer teaching and professional support,” he added.
The Scottish Council of Deans of Education was asked to comment but had not responded by the time of going to press.
A Scottish government spokeswoman said: “Through our new education reforms, we will take steps to ensure initial teacher education prepares students to enter the profession with consistently well-developed skills to teach key areas such as literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing.
“The Scottish government continues to provide £37 million to support the Teacher Induction Scheme, which includes funding for mentoring and support for all probationer teachers on the scheme.”