Mutant teachers will help our pupils to evolve

3rd November 2017 at 00:00
Don’t be afraid of the rise of a new breed of teacher trained to work in both primary and secondary

On Friday 15 September, in the imposing grandeur of Old Moray House in one of the oldest educational establishments in the world, the University of Edinburgh officially launched a new two-year programme. The MSc Transformative Learning and Teaching (MSc TLT) has an explicit focus on social justice and activist professionalism – and is unique in that it will produce teachers at master’s level to teach across both primary and secondary schools.

That same morning, an article by Emma Seith was published in Tes Scotland describing our cohort on the programme as “a new breed of teacher” (“Primary, secondary – the new breed will teach both”) – an analogy we’d like to examine for a moment. A new breed? Are we a mutant species: somewhat familiar but more so alien and odd? Perhaps. Over the course of time, species have changed and evolved to adapt to the conditions of their environment. We wholeheartedly embrace our roles as “mutant” students.

Our society’s understanding of education, of child development and knowledge, has evolved so dramatically over the past 20 years that it would be unnatural if the way in which we engage with the curriculum did not similarly evolve. Curriculum for Excellence – and particularly the broad general education (BGE) phase that it advocates – is an attempt to meet the needs of 21st-century children and the world they live in. Thank goodness the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS), the University of Edinburgh and its partnership authorities are supporting this vision of qualifications, fit for our everchanging world.

Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) reconceptualised the ways in which children learn, affording both practitioners and students autonomy to shape educational journeys at an individual level. We feel that the CfE celebrates that all pupils are unique, on their own paths of self-discovery and learning.

Early critics of CfE, however, expressed concern that teachers were to start teaching a new curriculum with no idea about the exams that they should be preparing children for. And recent responses to international and national assessment programme results have bemoaned a weakening of standards.

These criticisms hark back to a time when the outcomes of external assessments were the only standards by which teachers were held accountable. We know, however, that the P5-S3 transition phase is crucial. The most vulnerable children in our society are also those who are failing to reach their potential in school, and this particular phase in their academic career is vital for their prospects.

Crisis point

So why have some commentators argued that professionals educated to master’s level, who are dedicated to supporting these children academically and emotionally, are weakening the system?

Secondary-school staffing levels are at crisis point. Teachers are already covering subject classes in which they do not hold a specialism degree. Recently, a prominent Edinburgh school sent a letter home asking parents for help to fill the deficit left by two full-time maths teacher posts.

Our programme is not an attempt to plug teacher shortages. It has a more fundamental, long-term aim. This new qualification in BGE, accredited last November by the GTCS, includes core literacy and numeracy credits, along with a dedicated course that focuses on the emotional, psychological and social wellbeing of all young people. It affords all graduates, regardless of pathway – nursery to S3 generalist or P5 to S6 subject specialist – the knowledge, skills and experience to support students in these areas across the BGE. It is well-documented that numeracy and literacy skills are gateway areas. Their secure delivery is critical for pupils to access all other areas of their curriculum.

One criticism of this flexible qualification is the notion that it is an extension of primary education into the secondary school. But is this really a criticism? Primary schools are where meaningful overlaps of knowledge and disciplines happen instinctively and seamlessly. Interestingly, there has been limited mention of the capacity for subject specialists to work in the upper primary, which is also part of the MSc TLT.

Meanwhile, to insist that teachers in secondary schools can only ever teach in a specialism, with a narrow focus on a looming exam or folio deadline, is to deny the transformative power of interdisciplinary learning at its most meaningful. The BGE has eight curriculum areas – not subject specialisms, but areas. We feel it is time we put our money where our mouth is. If we’re truly dedicated to enriching, interdisciplinary learning, we need to support teachers who want to deliver this type of experience beyond primary, while recognising the power of subject-specialist teachers working in primary schools.

We have chosen this route because we think that this preparation will produce teachers who have something different, which can help make schooling a better experience for young people. We are not suggesting that every new teacher should be prepared in this way. Rather, we see ourselves as part of a much bigger system that has room for different types of teachers, with different specialisms and different things to offer.

‘A risk worth taking’

We, as a student body of 31, believe we have more than our academic abilities to offer the people we come to teach. Yes, we all have good undergraduate degrees, but we also offer more than 12 languages between us, represent eight different nationalities and a variety of ages, life and work experiences. This course is seen as risky by some educators, who cannot visualise how the qualification will work in practice. We’d be lying if we said we haven’t felt momentary twangs of trepidation – but ultimately we feel this is a risk worth taking.

This BGE qualification is new and it challenges traditional expectations of initial teacher education and newly-qualified teachers. We understand it may confuse or alienate some current practitioners. As a cohort, however, we’ve collectively agreed that our mutant status and the eyebrow-raising it invites is worth it – if in some small way we’re part of an evolution that strives to better the outcomes for all children in Scotland.

Anna Grant and Rachel Campbell are students at the University of Edinburgh, writing on behalf of the first MSc Transformative Learning and Teaching cohort, which will produce teachers who work in both primary and secondary schools

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