Teaching standards under the microscope

by Sep 03, 2010 No Comments
With the education system in the midst of major reform and hundreds of new teachers struggling to find jobs, the Teacher Education Review has some tough nuts to crack

Teaching the teachersFollowing the political debate this parliamentary session, at times one might have thought the answer to all of Scotland’s education problems lay in lower class sizes and new school buildings. But the feature that sets the world’s best education systems apart is not the size of their classrooms or the state of their buildings but the calibre of their teachers. And with a major educational reform under way in Scotland there has arguably never been a time when the system has been more reliant on the strength of its educators.

Education Secretary Michael Russell is in no doubt that the success of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) – and of Scottish education – hinges on teacher quality.

“Wherever you go in the world you find the two things that typify a really good school education system are the quality of teaching and the degree of consensus on the aims of education,” he tells Holyrood.

“I think making sure that education is of the highest standard in Scotland and that children have the best chance in Scotland depends to the greatest degree on the quality of the teachers we have in Scotland.” Throughout the debate Russell has been keen to stress that good teaching is the basis of the reform. Rolled out in schools this August, CfE is designed to overhaul not what is taught but the way it is taught.

Whether it fulfils the promise of being “the biggest educational reform in a generation” rests to a large extent on the skills of those delivering it.

This focus on teacher quality doesn’t quite square with the teacher employment statistics, however. Figures show that only 10 per cent of newly qualified teachers this year have secured a permanent teaching post in the local authority where they trained, with 15 per cent on temporary contracts and 40 per cent looking for supply work.

The most recent government statistics revealed a 1,348 drop in the number of teachers employed in Scotland in one year and precipitated the former Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop’s departure. The Government has since responded to the crisis by cutting the intake to Initial Teacher Education by 40 per cent.

Against this backdrop, the Review of Teacher Education in Scotland has its work cut out. Led by former HMIE chief Graham Donaldson, the review was launched by the Scottish Government in January to take a fresh look at teacher education right through from initial training to induction, probation and professional development. At a time when teacher skills are in the spotlight, the review is designed to ensure that those skills are up to scratch and the system for developing them fit for purpose.

“The quality of teaching is absolutely fundamental,” says Donaldson. “There’s a body of evidence across the world that shows that the variation in terms of young people’s learning, the factors which lead to the variation are greater within schools than they are between schools. In other words, the quality of the experience you get inside a school can vary dramatically and therefore, to have high quality teaching as the norm in a school is what we need to have.

“So the notion that what we need to do is attract high quality people into the profession, we need to train them and support them well and we need to be very clear of the expectations we have of the profession in terms of the learning of young people – all of that is integral to the success of Scottish education. My job is to look at how far teacher education can help to support that process,” the former chief inspector adds.

One of the key challenges for Donaldson is to ensure the system meets the needs of the new curriculum. CfE promises to give pupils a deeper learning experience by moving Scottish education away from over-assessment and teaching to the test.

To do this, it relies above all on innovative teaching and offers teachers greater autonomy to lead that process.

But is the current system of teacher education equipping them with these capacities? The curriculum arrived this year amidst some disquiet in the teaching profession as the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association urged the Government to delay the reform and is now balloting members on a work-to-rule, claiming teachers were not ready for the change.

For Donaldson the question is less about teachers’ technical skills and more about a change of culture. In the CfE era, teachers must be prepared to lead change in education, not just respond to it, he says.

“I think in terms of the way in which high performing education systems develop, the key lies in a process of development where a lot of that is happening as a matter of course, inside schools, inside the profession itself. Not waiting for external forces to force change on the system but actually where innovation and change is seen as part of the nature of the job,” he says.

“The pace of change in society at large, the pace of change in terms of the lives of our young people and the lives that our young people are going to be leading in their future means that we need a highly adaptive, responsive and reflective education system and what I’ve got to try and do is make sure that the way that we’re supporting our teachers encourages them to have both the confidence and the ability to take part in that process and to take a leading role in that process.” Professionalism is fundamental to this shift. Indeed teacher professionalism is a defining feature of Finnish education, one of the world’s top performing education systems where teachers study for five years and enjoy social status on a par with doctors and lawyers. Tiina Nevanpää, head of the teacher training institute at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland explains: “One stone base of our success is well-educated, motivated teachers. Teachers have masters degree (either in education or in the subject they teach) and they are capable of combining theory and practice.

Graham DonaldsonTeachers’ professional skills are respected and teachers have a lot of autonomy in their work.” Trust in teachers as professionals is a core tenet of CfE. And with that trust comes a responsibility to keep account of their own skills. In its submission to the review, the General Teaching Council for Scotland says: “Staff themselves will have to take responsibility for their own CPD, viewing it as an entitlement rather than as an imposition.” Comparing teachers to doctors who must stay constantly at the forefront of developments in their field, it said: “The GTCS would therefore envision teachers as scholars keeping up-to-date with and being actively involved in new research and developments in their field of education and pedagogy.” Teachers are currently entitled to 35 hours of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) per year.

The review is looking closely at CPD, Donaldson says and “would wish to see a very proactive profession in terms of its own professional development needs.” But if teachers are expected to take a lead in educational development, the nature of CPD must reflect that, argues Pamela Munn, Professor Emeritus at Edinburgh University’s Moray House School of Education and member of the review’s reference group. Professional development should focus not just on technical training but also on discussion of education policy, she says.

“I think it’s the hallmark of a profession that it takes responsibility for its own professional development and sees that as integral to being a teacher. It shouldn’t be seen as some sort of bolt-on or tick-box activity,” Munn says.

“There is some professional development that is quite technical. You learn how to do peer assessment or new approaches to teaching reading or how to teach subtraction or something like that. But CPD should also encourage greater debate about what kind of school system do we want?; how well do we think the curriculum is working?; are the structures of schooling right?; what do we do about under-achievement? There should be an opportunity for teachers to talk about these big issues without necessarily a direct and immediate payoff.” But on the technical side, some very basic skills have been singled out for improvement. Literacy and numeracy skills are a core aspect of CfE. In its submission to the review, however, schools inspectorate HMIE identified that in a small minority of new teachers those very skills are lacking. Headteachers’ association School Leaders Scotland has also raised the issue.

“We do think that there is a generational thing in terms of literacy and numeracy within the profession and that really does need to be picked up right across the board and given more prominence within initial and continuing training of all staff, primary and secondary. I don’t think those skills are as strong as they were in the past, simple as that,” says General Secretary Ken Cunningham.

Donaldson assures he is “looking very hard” at that concern including whether these skills should be tested during Initial Teacher Education.

The review has received a number of suggestions for how to make teachers better prepared for the classroom. One interesting proposal from the Universities of Glasgow and Aberdeen is to establish ‘training schools’, akin to ‘training hospitals’. Rather than having placements in schools across the country, the system would see trainees placed in special training schools, linked to the university where an academic staff member would be based. The University of Glasgow is currently working on the scheme with two high schools in the city and their associated primaries and is hoping to roll it out in that school cluster after Christmas.

Jim Conroy, the outgoing dean of education at Glasgow explains: “Basically, what we’re trying to establish is a model that echoes some of the features of clinical education. Groups of students go into a teaching hospital with clinicians who are university academics but whose lives are focused on clinical practice and that they have workshops and seminars, they have ward rounds, they have a range of strategies for developing the craft and the skills base of teaching within the context of the school but they nevertheless are attached to the university so they’re attached to the kind of intellectual firmament, they’re attached to good scholarship and research.

“If we get it right, I think it could be the model of teacher training for the future.

Education Secretary Michael RussellAnd I don’t see this as the Glasgow or the Glasgow and Aberdeen model. I see this as a model that has no significant financial implications but produces better and more integrated teacher education and preparation from the initial teacher to the seasoned professional.” Donaldson says he is keen to pursue the idea with the two universities involved.

Of course, teacher quality is not just about providing the best possible training but also attracting the best possible people to the profession in the first place. While the standard of those entering teacher training is generally considered high, many believe the profession would benefit from a wider variety of backgrounds and experiences. In its submission to the review, Stirling University’s Institute of Education puts forward the argument that “entrants to ITE should not be school leavers or graduates who have no experience of anything other than being a student, in order that a broader range of experiences can be brought to the development of the curriculum and pedagogy.” “The difficulty for a lot of teachers is that they go through school, they go through university and they go back into schools so their only experience of life is of schools and universities and that, in terms of addressing the needs of young people going forward, might be somewhat limited,” says Professor Richard Edwards, head of Stirling’s Institute of Education.

Donaldson admits more could be done to attract a better mix of candidates to the profession. One way to do it could be to introduce more flexible routes into teaching – an option he is considering.

“I think it’s interesting, in Scotland we essentially have two routes into teaching, either through the undergraduate BEd or through the postgraduate diploma.

We have the example from south of the border where the number varies but there are certainly between 20 and 30 different routes into teaching which they have created in England. Now one of the things we’re looking at in the review is the extent to which any of those routes which have been identified in England [and other parts of the world] might be applicable in Scotland,” he says.

One such route south of the border is Teach First. The programme which selects high-flying graduates from top universities and parachutes them into tough inner city schools, has been recognised by the schools regulator Ofsted. Donaldson says the review is considering Teach First and other routes to see how entry to the profession could become more flexible without lowering quality.

“Interestingly, one of the things that in other countries is increasingly being talked about is that teaching is not necessarily a lifelong occupation. Teach First is a good example of that where somebody may spend two, three, four years in teaching and then move on to other occupations and the time they’ve spent in teaching is seen to be an important part of their personal development and makes them well equipped for jobs in business, industry and other professions,” he adds.

But this recruitment drive will hardly be helped by the current employment prospects for teachers. Headlines such as ‘90 per cent of new teachers without permanent job’ are likely to make the best and brightest think twice about a career in teaching, be they school leavers or professionals. Meanwhile much of the talent that the Scottish Government has invested millions of pounds in training is in danger of being lost. Laura Mackenzie’s story illustrates the risk. The 25-year-old Edinburgh woman graduated from Moray House in 2008 with a BEd. After four years of study and one year of probationary work experience in a primary school in Livingston, Laura was unable to find a teaching post, temporary or permanent, and moved to Essex where she is now working as a primary teacher. With the average price of training a new teacher estimated at £22,500, losing teachers like Laura is not just damaging to the individual but costly to Scottish education.

Due to report at the end of the year, the Donaldson Review has some tricky issues to balance. At a time when budget cuts are biting and a comprehensive reform is being delivered, the quality of Scottish education largely comes down to the power of its teachers. Now is the time to ensure that they are given the support they need, from initial training through to retirement. They are, after all, the most important resource in Scottish education and one it cannot afford to waste.

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