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'Until the government learns lessons from Pisa, we will not have a professionalised teaching force'

Jennifer Chung is a lecturer in education and social sciences at St Mary’s University Twickenham, writes:

How do we best prepare teachers for the classroom? This is a question that has been asked for centuries, but the role of teachers and education in a country’s global competitiveness has increasingly propelled this issue into the forefront of politicians’ debates recently. And the outcome in England has been slightly muddled. Recent teacher-training policy initiatives in England have curiously contradicted current academic research.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), administered every three years by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) surveys 15-year-olds around the globe. High achieving countries receive international attention, and the lesser performing countries look to them for inspiration.

Finland is one such country receiving international attention. It lived in relative obscurity until the release of the first Pisa scores of 2000, but its consistently high scores in Pisa thrust it into the world’s educational spotlight. English politicians and policymakers increasingly use Pisa and the Finnish education system as a catalyst for policy change. Though East Asian countries and economies, such as Shanghai have overtaken Finland at the top of the PISA tables recently, Finland remains a revered and oft-mentioned template for education by politicians, not least when it comes to teacher education.

Research has shown that a main strength of Finnish education lies in its teachers, pointing to their high quality and their extensive preparation for the classroom. A very low acceptance rate for teacher education programmes (around 10 per cent of applicants) and the fact that all qualified teachers have master’s degrees contributes to this. Unsurprising, then, that England has used Finland as an example for new teacher ‘education’ policy explicitly, with, for example, the 2010 White Paper, The Importance of Teaching, directly citing the Finnish influence on England’s teacher ‘education’ reforms.

However, the White Paper contradicts itself. It says it looks to Finland, where teacher preparation is university-based and all teachers have master’s degrees, but then it proposes increasing school-based pathways into the teaching ‘profession’. The English policy proposals do not use Finland as a model for true reform, but rather for policy rhetoric.

Upon closer inspection into the policy of teacher training in England, it becomes very apparent to see how far from the Finnish model England has drifted. England’s politicians and the White Paper show that, in fact, a de-professionalised approach is preferable for preparing England’s future teachers.

In Finland, teacher education is university-based and research-based. However, in England, there is a crisis in professional identity, along with a loss in public confidence in the ‘profession’ as it stands. In fact, calling teaching in England a ‘profession’ may be misleading, as a de-skilling of teaching has been well underway. This is coupled with the intensification of the teacher workload. The teacher strikes of March 2014 illustrate this, and also the fact that many headteachers and deputy headteachers wish to take an early retirement, mainly blaming workload. Furthermore, teaching in England is not seen as a profession, rather, now quasi-professional and technical. This allows statements suggesting that teaching is a vocation. The perception of education as a profession in England thus continues to collapse.

The Finnish university-based, research-based teacher education process did not happen overnight. In fact, "The long march of teachers from despised and underprivileged civil servants to the core of the academic elite has been more glorious and successful in Finnish society than in most other countries in the world" (Kivinen & Rinne, 1994, p. 521). A concerted effort to academise and professionalise teaching occurred in the 1970s, and the fruits of these labours can be seen today, in the high level of education of Finnish teachers and the achievement of Finland in Pisa.

This begs the question – why the mistrust in universities with preparing future teachers in our country? The teacher-training policies in England have tried to move teacher training from universities, for example, from the PGCE and increasing school-based pathways into teaching, such as Teach First and Schools Direct. Curiously, the PGCE course emphasises a substantial amount of time training within school settings.

While Finnish teacher trainees do undertake teaching practice, the course is much more university- and research-based. One could argue that Finnish teacher trainees need more classroom practice. With too much theory, teachers would enter the classroom with not enough practical classroom experience. However, with not enough theory, the danger with the English case, teachers would enter the profession without the theoretical underpinnings needed to provide a strong foundation for informed practice. The real issue here is, how do we best balance the theory and practice of teacher preparation, and what education policies support this?

The underlying values of both Finland and England are relevant here. The Finnish education system operates on a cycle of trust – for example, trust in the teachers and their preparation leads to trust in the entire education system. In contrast, in England, there is a lack of trust. The inspection system, for example, is a manifestation of this. The recent policies moving teacher training from the universities to the schools uncover even more distrust, this time with the preparation of future teachers. A cycle of mistrust, therefore, embodies the English education system.

Related to this is the view of teaching as a profession in Finland, and as a craft or vocation in England. While the policy rhetoric in England keeps upholding Finland as an educational example, its actions show the opposite. Even though the best teacher preparation methodology is, and always may be, up for debate, England’s politicians, teacher educators, and teachers need to better align their views of policy, theory, and practice in order to create a consensus. Only then will the education system be on course for improvement, and ultimately, play a stronger role in England’s global competitiveness.

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