Time to level the playing field in teacher education
LEFTFIELD:The recent report of the International Review Panel on initial teacher education makes important recommendations for the overdue reform of our current system. If implemented they will enhance teacher professionalism and practice by increasing the research capacity of providers of initial teacher education (ITE).
Student outcomes are high in countries where teacher education is driven by research and teaching is informed by research evidence. Teacher educators in Irish universities are expected to devote up to 40 per cent of their time to research activity, and appointments and promotions are largely determined by research performance.
It is most regrettable that the remit of the reviewers did not include private, for-profit, ITE providers, such as Hibernia College, now the largest provider of primary-level teacher education in the State. Although “blended models” of ITE are worth considering, deeply disturbing questions about private providers arise in the context of this review.
Although increasing research capacity was the primary reason for the current proposals to close some ITE colleges and rationalise or relocate the remainder, the identity, qualifications and research activities of Hibernia’s teacher-education staff are not in the public domain, let alone part of the review.
The reviewers were particularly critical of over-reliance on part-time ITE staff, because such “casualisation is not conducive to high-quality outcomes, particularly in the area of research and systematic quality improvement”. Yet Hibernia employed about 300 part-time ITE staff even before becoming involved in postprimary-teacher education.
Although its remit was limited to publicly funded providers, the review called on the State to monitor the quality of entrants to all ITE providers, including private ones. And it expressed bemusement as to why the number of entrants to publicly funded institutions is capped while private-sector numbers remain uncapped – at a time when many graduate teachers are unemployed. Since its official imprimatur was announced quietly by Noel Dempsey, in August 2003, Hibernia College has been applauded by senior politicians. The nomination of its president to the Teaching Council by two education ministers, one Fianna Fáil, one Labour, indicates its political influence.
We hear repeatedly that Hibernia operates “at no cost to the exchequer”. Mary O’Rourke trotted out this mantra on TV3 last summer, and it has been repeated by members of the present Cabinet, including the Taoiseach, who eulogised the quality of Hibernia’s programmes during his 2011 address at the college.
According to the college website, however, the salaries of its 300 part-time staff supplement “their other teaching or research work in the universities and colleges where they are employed, often on a full time basis”. Is this really cost-neutral? Could part-time staff afford to work for Hibernia if they did not occupy publicly funded posts or have State pensions? What is the view of the teacher unions? Hibernia College, which returned a gross profit of €4 million in 2009, includes the rather Orwellian position of chief knowledge officer. Quality teacher education goes well beyond the transmission of knowledge and involves unprofitable and resource-intensive activities that develop critical thinking, reflectivity and professional collaboration and enhance relationships with pupils.
It is reasonable to expect a level playing field for publicly funded and private ITE providers. This would require both sectors to comply with the recommendations of the review panel in the interests of quality teaching and learning in our schools.
Instead two parallel sets of expectations are clearly in operation. As the Minister proceeds with the implementation of the reviewers’ recommendations in the publicly funded sector, what changes, if any, will he require of the private sector?
Dr JIM GLEESONlectures in the department of education and professional studies at the University of Limerick