The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Enhancing professionalism in education since 1965

Scotland’s system of teacher education: envy of the world?

Feedback from our European peers is positive but is the perception a reality when it relates to the teaching standards of our new teachers?

Greg Dempster

We often hear comments about the strength of our system and the preparation of new teachers. Many others seek to learn from our approach to initial teacher education (ITE) and see the probation year as the jewel in its crown. Over the last four years, as a Board Member of the European School Heads Association, I have had the privilege of engagement with peers from around Europe and of direct discussion with key people in organisations such as the OECD. These discussions have often involved reflection and positive comment on many features of Scottish education, including our approach to preparing new teachers. That positivity has not just been during one-to-one meetings, but has featured in official publications too. An example is a European Commission document from 2010 – “Developing coherent and system-wide induction programmes for beginning teachers: a handbook for policymakers” . Looking back at that document, it is striking how positively Scottish ITE compares with other systems, and how few countries have any sort of induction scheme for new teachers.

(There is) a perception among school leaders about a diminution of the readiness of new teachers for the challenges of the classroom.

It is always welcome to hear that others hold our system in high regard. It is also important to keep improving teacher quality in line with the aspirations of the Donaldson report, with the recent OECD publication “Effective Teacher Policies: Insights from PISA stating clearly “There is… no room to feel complacent or resigned about the education system of any country… it is entirely within our means to attract, retain and develop high-quality teachers.” Given current teacher shortages and recent criticism in the Scottish Parliament and in the media, are we listening closely enough to critical voices?

For many years I heard an annual chorus of “these new teachers are the best yet”. However, around three years ago the chorus was no longer singing with one voice. Instead, some were striking a different note. Concerns about the readiness of new teachers for the classroom started as a trickle, which I ignored. Clearly, in any system or in any walk of life you will have individual experiences of colleagues performing less strongly or expectations placed on new colleagues being unrealistic. My view was that the positive chorus drowned out those singing another song sufficiently well that they could be ignored.

That changed as others started to start to pick up the same tune. More and more I was hearing concerns from members about “the quality of new teachers” or “readiness for the classroom”. To test whether this was a widely held view or still a small number of siren voices, AHDS asked members to complete a short survey. The response very much reinforced that there had been a change in the recent past regarding school leader perceptions of the readiness of new teachers – with around three-quarters of those who responded noting concerns.

AHDS welcomes the opportunity to engage in the Strategic Board for Teacher Education along with other professional associations and key players

To be clear, I am not suggesting that all, or the majority of, new teachers are performing less well than expected. I am reporting a perception among school leaders about a diminution of the readiness of new teachers for the challenges of the classroom. I don’t know what is at the root of that perception, but it is widely held and therefore merits a closer look. It may be that universities are recruiting in a different way. It may be that course content has changed. It may be due to change in the system (e.g. the stretch on school leaders means they are less able to support new teachers than they were in the past or perhaps classroom pressures have changed through an insufficiently resourced presumption of mainstreaming policy). It may be all these things or none of them, but it is important that work is done to get to the root of these changing perceptions and to address them.

In addition to listening and responding to concerns, we also need to pay attention to the positive messages – back to the “jewel in the crown”. In our survey, members offered up no criticism of the probationary year. So, perhaps the probation year is not currently a cause for concern. However, a message I have heard consistently over the years is that it could be improved by re-profiling it to taper-off non-contact hours so that new teachers work towards normal class commitment in the final term of the year. Should the group and the research noted above be considering that or other revisions to the probationary year, too?

AHDS welcomes the opportunity to engage in the Strategic Board for Teacher Education along with other professional associations and key players. We also welcome the recently announced research project “Measuring Quality in Initial Teacher Education”, which will seek to identify, over a longer period, the key ingredients of quality ITE to “support a more realistic and research-informed national conversation about Initial Teacher Education”. We need open dialogue and quality research to ensure that we can attract, train and retain the best possible teaching workforce.

About the Author

Greg Dempster has been the General Secretary of the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland since 2004. Greg is a board member of SSERC and of ESHA (European School Heads Association). He also serves on the GTCS Appointments Committee. Before coming into the world of education, Greg worked for the Scottish Government in a range of different policy areas.

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