Aspirations alone won’t improve teacher training

Opinion: Considerable investment is needed to reform teacher-training in the State

Photograph: Thinkstock

Photograph: Thinkstock

 

Initial teacher education in Ireland is a hot topic. In these pages recently, Prof Jim Gleeson made some pertinent points about reform efforts in his opinion piece. In the first instance, the rigour Gleeson advocates, and the necessary synergy between theory and practice he espouses, requires a partnership between university departments of education and schools.

This is vital and touches on Teaching Council policy as well as the Sahlberg report.

However, in spite of earlier drafts of the Teaching Council policy document on school placement advocating moving beyond goodwill to more substantive school-university partnerships, the council’s definitive 2013 document on placement effectively reverted to reliance on the goodwill of schools to participate in and contribute to the formation of student teachers.

My colleagues and I are very grateful to principals and teachers who continue to open their schools and classrooms to our ITE (initial teacher education) students, and part-time colleagues who supervise them give unstintingly of their time and expertise. However, it is perfectly understandable also that as schools suffered the impact of austerity, especially the loss of middle-management positions, reluctance to take on the responsibilities of providing student teachers with classroom experience is a challenge.

 

In a bind

It’s unfortunate that while the Teaching Council’s remit is to promote and regulate the teaching profession, its responsibilities do not include allocating resources. This places the council in a bind, articulating policy on teacher education while lacking the power to enable its implementation.

Consequently, teacher educators must look elsewhere to resource such policy and in a context where the university sector has been substantively affected by austerity measures.

For example, the Teaching Council requires that ITE programmes have a staff student ratio of 15:1 when the average in the university sector is 24: 1. If schools of education are to meet this teaching requirement, a target to which teacher educators are well-disposed, it is not possible to employ the additional staff within existing financial models.

If teacher education is to become the policy priority that it is in other countries, additional and appropriate funding through the Higher Education Authority is necessary.

The Sahlberg report advocated major restructuring in the provision of ITE: to reduce the excessive number of providers (19) and proliferation of ITE programmes (more than 40). The intention was to create a critical mass of research capacity among teacher educators. The report points to those contexts (Canada, Singapore, Finland and Korea) with highly ranked systems of education, where “policy on teacher education is a national priority”.

In these countries “teachers are educated in academic universities where theory and practice are combined to form a foundation for teaching that includes being research-based”. The recommendations of this report were instantly accepted as national policy, but without additional resources.

Undergraduate programmes were extended from a three- to a four-year BEd, while postgrads from a one-year diploma to a two-year professional master of education.

 

Research

The report also indicates that to systematically build research capacity among teacher educators in Ireland, a policy on educational research and its funding is necessary.

There is a significant lacuna in research funding for teacher education, in contrast to other public interest sectors, such as health. This is especially difficult to justify when one considers the benefits that accrue for society from evidence-based investment in education.

The report also noted that the current over-reliance on part-time staff was not conducive to high-quality outcomes, strongly suggesting that if fault lines between practice and theory, practitioners and researchers, are to be connected in generative ways, appropriate and strategic resourcing is a necessity. This is where Teaching Council policy and Sahlberg recommendations dovetail precisely. In order to have the expertise in universities to build research capacity and to develop and sustain research-informed teacher education, staffing and expertise need to be enhanced.

For example, in Norway, a country with a similar population to Ireland’s and a recently introduced ITE programme very similar to the professional master of education, more than 160 doctoral fellowships have been created to prepare the next generation of teacher educators with the requisite expertise.

The school of education in UCD has been an enthusiastic promoter of the vision for teacher education expressed in the Sahlberg report, as should be the case in a highly ranked research intensive university.

Reducing the number of ITE programmes and providers is an important first step.

Unless there is considerable investment over time in teacher educators and their universities, however, reform will continue to be aspirational. Anything less will continue to perpetuate a two-tiered career structure – practitioners and researchers – that serves neither very well, and certainly not the formation of student teachers.

  • Prof Ciarán Sugrue, School of Education, UCD
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