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Where now for teacher education?

Ministers must stop putting off the need to overhaul a system that satisfies no one, says Douglas Weir

This has been a bad session for teacher education and it may well get worse.

Already since August 2004, students have expressed their anger at the teacher education institutions (apparently) not providing them with placements; a principal teacher has claimed that teachers could do the job better than teacher educators; one professor of education (active in teacher education) has commented that teacher education is suffering from inertia; another professor of education (not active in teacher education) has commented that teacher education has little credibility in research; and various subject associations (technical, home economics and geography) are all asking why there is so little output from teacher education to fill vacancies in their subjects.

And still to come is the Scottish Executive's second stage review of initial teacher education which will add yet more expectations to the long list above. What can and should be done either to maintain or to increase the status of teacher education within university and professional education?

The two statuses are often in conflict. Status in university teaching derives from four-year undergraduate programmes and postgraduate courses leading to master and doctor degrees. Teacher education thus requires more students to be on four-year undergraduate courses and on masters rather than one-year postgraduate courses. That would give staff more opportunity to do research, show more continuity between theory and practice and allow a more convenient proportion of placement to campus study.

But, to increase status in the profession, even more teacher education would take place in schools, more school teachers would be the staff who deliver teacher education programmes and the commitment to research could be avoided.

Given that the number and proportion of one-year teacher education students continues to rise (and will rise dramatically again next year), the classic commitment of university staff to research has already been undermined. At the same time, the need to staff schools in geographically remote areas has helped certain local authorities to take a leading role in delivering their own programmes, thus further undermining the argument that teacher education is a university subject.

The further conflict in teacher education is between producing a sufficient number of probationer teachers and staffing the particular sectors and subjects in which teachers are required. It would seem simple to provide an adequate supply of teachers when the General Teaching Council for Scotland register contains 80,000 teachers and the Scottish Executive commitment is to have 53,000 full-time teachers employed in schools by 2007.

But teachers are: living in the wrong place; not presently available for work; qualified in the wrong subject; and trained as primary rather than secondary teachers. From the Executive's point of view, these minor inconveniences can be solved in a number of ways, including local authority delivery of courses, as mentioned above. For example, and notwithstanding the pressure that a monolithic PGCE programme entails for lecturers, the Executive believes that we still have a large surplus of candidates willing to enrol for one-year, full-time teacher education courses. So, in response to subject associations, the Executive replies that the universities will train more teachers in their subjects.

But, if that strategy is unsuccessful, ministers intend repealing the unhelpful parts of the Schools (Scotland) Code and thus making it simple to employ primary teachers to teach in secondary schools. And, just in case the combined effect of these strategies fails to deliver the requisite number of teachers in the appropriate places, there are the school-college partnerships where an ever-growing number of secondary school pupils are attending FE colleges and being taught by lecturers who do not need such an expensive university education or the inconvenience of GTC registration.

None of the alternative strategies for teacher supply has much to offer university education and little more to offer professional education. But what would?

Clearly it is to be hoped that the second stage review of initial teacher education will have solutions; yet the fact that the publication of that review is already six months late hardly inspires confidence. Nevertheless, it could have a positive impact belatedly (from 2006-07) if it concentrated on the crucial issues. First, there is a lack of pedagogical depth in many of our current crop of beginning teachers, not because of any lack of talent or commitment but simply because 75 per cent of them undertake the one-year programme and thus have only 18 weeks of education for teaching.

The international mainstream is of countries where the majority of teachers have had the benefit of a full undergraduate degree in education. Why can Scotland not join that mainstream?

Second, our primary and secondary schools have to fit teacher education in with all their other duties and without any additional resources. This means not only that there is a less than universal disposition to take student teachers on placement, but that the present (and growing) volume of placements means stretching the capabilities of some supervising teachers beyond a reasonable limit.

The time is overdue for particular secondary schools, or groups of primary schools, to be designated as training schools. Those schools would receive increased funding, and would undertake extended training for supervising teachers. In return, they would offer placements for significant numbers of student teachers. Of course, parents would seek guarantees that the quality of pupil education would not be compromised, but those could be given with confidence based on experience in other countries and other professions.

Finally, if the Executive is committed to teacher education as a university discipline, it has to reduce the roller-coaster of student intake figures which makes it difficult for faculties of education to offer permanent contracts to a stable number of staff. It should revert to a system where the faculties were guaranteed funding for a specified number of staff over a reasonable planning period (say four years). If teacher education demand fell, the "surplus" staff would not be sent back to their previous employment in schools but would be reallocated to other national priorities in staff or curriculum development.

Without that stability, it is impossible to drive up the quality of teacher education. Only the quality of new professional programmes, fit for the 21st century and grounded in systematic research, will meet the needs of our schools and their teachers. Now let us have the second stage review of initial teacher education and the chance to comment on it.

Douglas Weir is a professor in the faculty of education at Strathclyde University.

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