Is Scotland’s teacher training letting down our children?
A row erupted last year when a trainee teacher told a Scottish Parliament committee she did not believe that term’s graduates had sufficient skills in numeracy to pass on to 11-year-olds. It raised questions about the standards of training ... and the deb
It is very important to understand that teacher education is the starting point of a journey and not the end point
AS the five teaching students took their seats in committee room 1 of the Scottish Parliament on the morning of May 10 last year, none of them would have realised the seismic impact they were about to have.
After the opening pleasantries, MSPs from the education committee began to question the group on the quality of teacher training in Scotland – or teacher education, as the universities who deliver it prefer it to be known.
Following a number of national and international surveys that indicated a fall in standards of literacy and numeracy in the classroom, the conversation quickly turned to the matter of basic skills.
Halla Price, a primary teaching student from Edinburgh University, told the committee: “There was not enough focus on the teachers having the skills to teach numeracy. I do not believe everyone who graduated this year has sufficient skills in numeracy to be able to teach it to 11-year-olds at a reasonable standard.”
Cue bedlam. Here, for the first time, was a suggestion the slide in standards could be laid at the door of poorly prepared trainee teachers unable to pass on the essential skills required to make pupils literate and numerate.
Even tabloid newspapers became interested in teacher training, with the front page of next day’s Daily Record berating the Scottish Government under the headline “You Do The Maths”.
Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, seized the moment, demanding new literacy and numeracy tests for primary teachers at the beginning and end of their course.
There was even graver concern when the education committee received a follow-up report from universities that said student teachers on some four-year degree courses could spend as little as 44 hours on numeracy and 48 hours on literacy.
Education Secretary John Swinney said he was “very concerned” by the findings and raised the issue with both universities and the General Teaching Council for Scotland.
More than a year on and there is still resentment f rom some involved in teacher education over the way the issue played out.
“The students were not a representative sample,” one member of university staff said. “They were a very specific group who had already written to complain to the committee and they were the only ones selected to speak. It was unfortunate and we are still dealing with the consequences.”
Professor Ian Rivers, chairman of the Scottish Council of Deans of Education, is also concerned about the weight given to some of the statements made to the committee.
“There was no actual evidence that teachers who leave university are unable to teach 11-year-olds to the appropriate standard,” he said. “Every university does its absolute best, working in partnership with experienced teachers, to make sure our students leave able to meet the requirements and professional standards expected of them.
“The committee wanted the literacy and numeracy work we do neatly calculated in terms of the number of hours we deliver, but that is a very narrow view of what we do. All of the work on literacy, numeracy is integrated into the course as a whole so it is very difficult to
provide what they wanted. That does not mean literacy and numeracy is being ignored.”
Mr Rivers also questions the current narrative from headteachers and council officials that the quality of new teachers is not what it was.
Local authorities have recorded an increase in the number of probationers having to repeat a year because they were not seen as being of an appropriate standard and school leaders have also raised concerns over quality.
“We do not allow anyone to graduate if their practice is not up to scratch and that is done with assessments by a member of academic staff from the university in partnership with the classroom teacher they have been working with,” said Mr Rivers.
“It is very important to understand that teacher education is the starting point of a journey and not the end point. When students are on probation councils are also heavily involved in the development of skills and knowledge as the teacher moves towards becoming a fully registered member of the profession.”
The other concern that has unsettled public confidence in teacher education is drop-out rates. Figures published this year showed the number of new teachers leaving after less than a year had doubled in just four years. In total, almost 300 probationers have left the profession since the 2014/15 school year.
While the reasons for leaving are not given, a wider survey of probationers conducted last year highlighted a number of worrying concerns about the quality of courses and the experience of probationers in schools.
Some t r ainees t old how t heir “appalling” experiences at the hands of disinterested lecturers and on placement in classrooms had made them
We do not allow anyone to graduate if their practice is not up to scratch and that is done with assessments by staff from the university in partnership with the classroom teacher they have been working with
rethink their career path. One said veteran teachers had told them to “leave while you still can” while another suggested bullying was rife within the profession and staff rooms a “poisonous environment”.
The Scottish Council of Deans of Education argues that the drop-out rates are not particularly high and are generally stable. However, they acknowledge a growing concern over the ever-increasing demands placed on trainee teachers and the requirement that universities provide the Scottish Government with evidence of how they are addressing a variety of additional areas including looked after children, children with autism, LBGTI pupils, black and ethnic minority pupils and pupils with mental health issues.
Moyra Boland, a senior lecturer from Glasgow University’s School of Education, said all of these areas were crucial, but questioned whether it was wise to try to cram them all into a one-year postgraduate course.
She said: “You can never get everything into the curriculum. That will never happen because there is so much to know in schools and it is such a complicated job. You never stop learning as a teacher because every class provides new challenges with new combinations of children.
“Rather than thinking about covering absolutely everything in initial teacher education in Glasgow we are much more focused on how we give our students the skills and dispositions to find the knowledge they need to support their changing classrooms from year to year.”
Ken Muir, chief executive of the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS), also has concerns over what is expected of trainee teachers and believes the time is ripe for a wider review.
He said: “It would be a good time to look at whether the current system of a one-year postgraduate followed by a one-year probationary year adequately prepares teachers for the range of youngsters and experiences they will face.
“There are huge added responsibilities on teachers, and therefore on teacher education programmes, and an expectation that everything has to be covered which creates pressures and difficulties.
“We need to stand back and ask, if we want teachers to be skilled in covering a wide range of areas from sex education to additional support needs, can we cram all that into an 18- week university postgraduate programme?”
Mr Muir said one solution was to look at a longer period of induction that allowed teachers to undertake the additional studies they require once they were in school so they could focus on the areas most pertinent to the context of their schools.
There is also more radical thinking on the current structure of initial teacher education.
Professor Chris Chapman, chairman of Educational Policy and Practice at Glasgow University’s Robert Owen Centre, wants to see barriers broken down between universities and schools.
“If we are building new schools we should look at teacher preparation in the design of those buildings. You could have studio classrooms or experimental classrooms where trainee teachers are working with university staff and teachers in a more regular and dynamic way,” he said.
“I would like to see university staff co-located in schools and working much more closely on a day-to-day basis with teachers and student teachers and engaging with research. That would create a much more dynamic and reflective set of teachers.”
Raymond Soltysek, a former teaching lecturer at Strathclyde University and now an i ndependent educational consultant, argues Scotland could go much further.
He believes the inconsistencies highlighted in the way universities deliver basic skills is an indicator of a system where students at different institutions study different subjects for different lengths of time and are assessed in different ways.
“Perhaps more radical initiatives should be explored,” he said. “Many have suggested various structural changes, including taking professional teacher training back into the public sector.
“However, a model of public ownership might take the form of a National College of Teacher Education – a central body run by the GTCS, councils, Education Scotland, teachers’ bodies and associations – that would centralise matters such as recruitment, course design, student placement coordination and assessment. That would provide much greater consistency in what is delivered across Scotland.”
The trainees give their views to the the committee and Halla Price, on the right, created a storm when she told MSPs ‘There was not enough focus on the teachers having the skills to teach numeracy”