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Quality street

By 3 May 2012No Comments

Jim O’Brien, Professor Emeritus and former Dean of Edinburgh University’s Moray House School of Education, has challenged Scottish teachers.
His chapter entitled ‘The potential of continuing professional development, in School Effectiveness and Improvement*, assumes that the recent emphasis on school leadership as key to school improvement has downgraded the importance of teacher quality.
O’Brien is sceptical about formal teacher standards as a quality-raising mechanism. Standards such as the General Teaching Council’s can become a bureaucratic mechanism for governments and employers to lever control over the teaching profession.
Research, however, does suggest that individual teacher quality can have a significant, cumulative impact on learners’ achievements. O’Brien suggests four mechanisms to improve that quality:
• Improve the quality of applicants entering teaching • Improve the quality of initial teacher education • Develop teachers’ skills while they are in the profession • Promote and retain the best teachers but ‘move on’ those who fail to ‘develop’.
That harsh view encapsulates much of the Donaldson Review’s conclusions, but there is a pragmatic debate on the first point: what is meant by improving the quality of applicants? Higher entrance qualifications for those seeking to enter undergraduate training? First class honours degrees for those entering postgraduate training?
There are two problems there. Firstly, high academic qualifications don’t always translate into strong teaching skills. Anyway the current entry qualifications simply represent a tariff to control the required numbers: increase the entry qualifications, with no other change, the numbers will drop and the profession will be under-staffed. Perhaps if the entry qualifications and teacher salaries were increased that combination might improve the quality of entrants.
There are also questions on the quality of initial teacher education. Having taught for close to 40 years, my perception was of new cohorts of teachers with increasingly strong reflective, professional pedagogic skills but there are exceptions. In my experience the exceptions are often in the areas where recruitment is hardest. We know that today an English or History graduate will struggle to attain a postgraduate teachertraining place. The result is that most of those who get there are committed, determined and high quality.
That’s not universal. In subjects with a dearth of entrants, there’s a tendency to poorer quality.
Improved teacher quality has to be built on the capacity for self-evaluation, collective self-improvement and on developing teachers’ skills on the job. O’Brien emphasises the need for such work to be based on what happens in real classrooms, built from teachers’ existing skills and school-based wherever possible. He also recognises the value of award-bearing courses and secondments and supports the normalisation of career-long professional learning and the accreditation and recording of high-level local in-service work O’Brien insists that a clear link between school self-evaluation and teacher professional development is essential. Professional development must be academically rigorous but it must be rooted in the real needs of the schools in which the teachers are working. So far, so good.
The challenge to Jim O’Brien and his colleagues is that many teachers are sceptical about the capacity of university education departments to play a key role in the delivery of such professional development. That’s the very point that O’Brien is keen to push, but the distance of many academics from practitioners makes that process exceptionally problematic. The very best staff development is that occurring in local learning communities and on courses delivered by high quality practitioners. If universities want to play a role in that, they will have to rebalance their commitment to arcane academic research and spend more time in the classroom.

*Chapman, Armstrong, Harris et al, School Effectiveness and Improvement: Research, Policy and Practice. Routledge (RRP £28.99)
The above article was first published in Holyrood Magazine on 30 April 2012:

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