Teaching the teachers

Published in Village magazine, January 2011 The Department of Education has announced plans to revamp teacher training in line with some of the best education systems in the world. But will it make a difference? Lenny Antonelli reports

Training for most secondary school teachers is inadequate, the Department of Education has admitted. This surprising statement is found in a new plan that proposes a major revamp of teacher training in Ireland. The Better Literacy and Numeracy for Children and Young People plan says that the typical nine-month graduate teaching course "cannot adequately prepare the great majority of post-primary teachers for developing the skills required to teach or progress their students' literacy and numeracy skills." "There's not enough time to do anything well in nine months," Dr Jim Gleeson of the Department of Education and Professional Studies at the University of Limerick told Village. "There's an increasing realisation that in a lot of European countries the teacher education experience is longer."

The plan proposes a shake-up of training for aspiring primary and secondary teachers. College courses for both will be extended by one year, and students will spend more time engaging in teaching practice in the classrooms of "high quality" teachers. Newly qualified teachers will get further support from mentors, while further training will be mandatory for teachers during their careers. More emphasis will be placed on literacy and numeracy in schools, and on standardised testing.

The document is only at draft stage, and the Teaching Council  — which promotes and regulates teaching in Ireland — will soon make more thorough recommendations on teacher training. But the plan appears to be based on strong international evidence that great teaching is at the heart of the world's best education systems. Despite having a major impact on students teaching quality is rarely debated in Ireland.

In 2007, consultants McKinsey published How The World's Best-Performing School Systems Come Out On Top, a detailed look at what traits the world's best education systems — as judged by the OECD — have in common. The underlying factor? It’s largely down to selecting the best graduates to teach and giving them the best training possible.

In top performing countries such as Finland and South Korea entry to teacher training is highly selective, making the profession attractive to the best graduates. To be accepted students typically have to show excellent literacy and numeracy, strong communication skills, a willingness to learn and desire to teach.

Top education systems see improving teaching as the only way to boost student outcomes, according to McKinsey. Teachers are coached in the classroom and expected to learn from each other. Schools cultivate a culture of continuous improvement, and principals devote their time to supporting both teachers and pupils rather than administrating. Schools set high standards for every child, evaluate student performance and intervene when standards aren’t met.

The UK charity Teach First has been applying many of these lessons since 2002. The charity aims to fight educational disadvantage by recruiting top graduates, training them as teachers and placing them in some of the UK’s most challenging schools. Its teachers improve struggling departments according to UK inspectors Ofsted, and over 80% of Teach First teachers are rated either 'outstanding' or 'good'.

Victoria Richley is in the second year of the Teach First programme. She graduated from the University of Newcastle with a degree in English in 2007 and then went to Spain to study Spanish. "I had the intention when I was coming back to the UK that I was going to study law. However when I was away I started to realise I didn't want to work in the corporate world," she said.

Like all Teach First participants, she began with six weeks of intensive training before starting to teach. "Teaching is a profession that's based on reflection and learning from what you do in the classroom," she said. Teach First participants continue to attend seminars and workshops once in the classroom, and are offered extensive evaluation and coaching from tutors.

Competition for places on Teach First is intense, and the workload is huge. "When Teach First recruit people they're looking for things like humility, empathy, and motivation, as well as academic ability," she said. Students finish the first year of the programme with a graduate certificate in education and can then work towards a master's degree.

In Finland, most teachers spend at least five years training and possess a master's degree. Less than 10% of those who apply to be teachers are successful, and along with medicine teaching is the most sought-after profession. In Scotland every teacher is guaranteed a year’s work after graduating, with a lighter timetable to allow for induction and mentoring.

Back at home the Department of Education appears to be copying and pasting from the best international examples — its plan emphasises the importance of selecting the best graduates, providing them with extensive theoretical and practical training and then mentoring new teachers. It says initial training should produce “reflective” teachers, and that schools should cultivate a culture of constant improvement.

But major roadblocks lie ahead. Better teacher training will require more money, but the state's four-year austerity plan envisages a cut in teacher numbers, higher fees for third level students, a charge for PLC students, and cuts to programmes for travellers, adult literacy, community education and more.

"Given the paucity of resources at the moment it's remarkable that initial teacher education is now coming on to the agenda," Dr Jim Gleeson said. "For years and years when there were plenty of resources it was the forgotten part of the whole system a lot of the time."

He said that the proposed induction programme for teachers — which will see new teachers get a more experienced mentor — is still “skeletal”, and pointed to the danger that there will be little connection between initial teacher education and induction. “No matter how good any initial teacher education programme is, unless it’s built on and developed as the graduate goes through his or her professional career, it’s limited,” he said.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation welcomed the the one-year increase to the bachelor of education programme for primary teachers, but general secretary Sheila Nunan stressed that it's "impossible to implement the curriculum as planned in overcrowded, under-resourced classes in sub-standard schools." The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland said the plans will have little value to students struggling to keep up in big classes.

But evidence is mixed on how class size effects pupils. In 1998, Eric Hanushek of Stanford University examined 277 different studies on the effects of reducing class size, and found that in almost three quarters of cases it made no difference. A positive effect was found in just 15% of studies, and Hanushek concluded that teacher quality is far more important than class size.

But others say class size is crucial, claiming it leads to better relationships between teachers and students, less need for discipline, and that smaller classes prevent students from slipping through the cracks.

"If you're into more pupil centred teaching and learning, then large classes are a constraint," Gleeson said. "Whereas if you're going to teach in the traditional didactic way— the stand at the board and use the textbook way — I'm not sure class size is a major issue for many students, but for disadvantaged students it certainly is a huge problem."

Though most indicators were positive, the Department of Education's chief inspector reported last month that primary teachers were inadequately prepared for almost one quarter of maths and English lessons observed. Research last year showed that most second class pupils were taught by teachers who described themselves as “not very” or only “somewhat” confident teaching maths to weaker students. Meanwhile, the OECD was set to publish its latest research on the performance of 15 year olds in maths, science and literacy as Village went to print.

"Teacher training needs a shake up in this country, it needs a major overhaul,” recently qualified secondary school teacher Marie Lavin told Village.

Lavin reckons few of her fellow 2009 graduates from NUI Galway found teaching jobs in Ireland. "A lot went to England right after they graduated. Some stuck it out until after Christmas and then they went. I applied for umpteen jobs this summer. I didn't get a reply, never mind an interview."

Presuming the planned reforms go ahead, they will have little impact if few changes are made in existing classrooms and if new teachers are expertly trained but left unemployed.

A group chaired by the Department of Education’s general secretary is overseeing the implementation of its new literacy and numeracy plan. The department is currently accepting public submissions on the document.

Dr Jim Gleeson is a member of the Teaching Council but was speaking in a personal capacity