Teaching the teachers

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

Village magazine, January 2011

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

Being more civic

Giving young people a basic understanding of politics and democracy is surely as important as any other activity in school — but civic education has a tumultuous history in Ireland, and is rarely taken seriously. Lenny Antonelli reports

Village magazine, September 2010

(Note: this is my edit of the article, not Village's)

Young people in Ireland are more politically aware than those in at least 30 other countries, according to new international research. The International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS) surveyed 140,000 students across 38 countries, and found that more Irish students intend to vote in future than the international average too.

But its initial findings have been largely ignored. The OECD’s conclusion in January that the mediocre standard of maths and science among Irish pupils stunts our economy generated headlines, but there’s been little focus on how the quality of our civic education effects the nation’s political and social health.

The ICCS findings provide a cautious thumbs up, but we’re still far from boasting an education system that ensures every student is politically engaged. “It's encouraging but it shouldn't be a cause for any complacency,” says Gerry Jeffers of the education department at NUI Maynooth.

There may even be quite subtle reasons for Ireland’s high placing, such our good literacy rate or similarities between topics in the survey and the Civic, Social and Political Education (CSPE) curriculum, explains Jude Cosgrove of the Educational Research Centre (ERC), which ran the ICCS survey in Ireland. The full ICCS report will be released in late September, and in November the ERC will publish a detailed national report [Update: now released, see erc.ie].

Promoting “active participation” may be one of CSPE’s main goals, but the ICCS survey — given to 3,400 second year students in Ireland — found students here have fairly average levels of involvement in civic activities outside school.

Sixty per cent of CSPE’s marks go towards a student’s report on their action project — some activity that involves civic engagement — but ‘soft’ projects are common. Teacher and campaigner Mark Conroy says many teachers invite the same guest speaker in year after year to discuss an uncontroversial issue, with students only given menial tasks such as finding the speaker’s phone number or welcoming him to the school. “It's meaningless. The students are certainly no better off in terms of civic attitudes at the end of it. If they did a project that had a component of proper community action, they'd learn something.”

“Civic and political education is a very pedestrian affair in Irish education,” he says. “It, to all intents and purposes, is an information source, rather than a call to arms. It does not have as its purpose the function of creating genuinely politically-conscious individuals.” No qualification in politics or sociology is needed to teach CSPE, and Conroy believes this hinders the subject. “The first thing I think that is needed is teachers who are genuinely fired up by the issues that should be raised in a CSPE class. All too often it is seen as a subject that fills up the gaps in a teacher's timetable.”

But important progress has still been made. Ireland is one of just 19 countries in the ICCS study that has a dedicated civics subject, while Gerry Jeffers says the fact 60% of CSPE’s marks are awarded for civic action — no matter how modest —  is a big step forward. And while some schools let the subject rot, it thrives in others where principals and teachers take it seriously. But Jeffers says the subject needs more than 40 minutes a week to flourish.

One CSPE student I spoke — my 15 year old sister — said she has no absolutely no interest in politics, but that CSPE nonetheless taught her the basics about voting and government. But she also said the subject is considered easy, and that many of the exam questions just require common sense.

Internationally there’s strong evidence that good civic education leads to greater participation and political awareness, but the subject has a turbulent history in Ireland. The Church of Ireland sought its introduction at the birth of Irish state but the Catholic Church objected, fearing it would encroach on religious education. In 1967 civics was introduced as an unexamined subject. The syllabus focused on the “accumulation of facts about public organisations”, and the importance of patriotism, morality and obeying the law. Civics and religion were often taught as one subject.

By the early 1970s the subject was dying. The Curriculumand Examinations Board (CEB)developed a new social and political studies syllabus in the 1980s, but it faced opposition — during the 1987 election the group Family Solidarity claimed the CEB was subversive and anti-Catholic. Fine Gael lost the election and the subject lay dormant until education minister Mary O'Rourke introduced a CSPE pilot project in 1993. In 1997, it became a Junior Cert subject.

Six years later Garret Fitzgerald criticised the lack of political education at senior cycle, arguing that, “when students are reaching the stage at which they would begin to have questions to ask and would want to probe and challenge, their interest is damped down by removing them from contact with political, social and civic issues”. The government proposed the introduction of a senior cycle civics subject in 2006, and the NCCA published a draft syllabus last year.

It’s an impressive document, emphasising human rights and democratic learning. And students will take it seriously — it’s designed as a full-time subject and the draft syllabus is rich in political philosophy, referring to Marx and Locke, to Plato and Hobbes.

But it’s future is uncertain. In response to a query I submitted asking when the subject would be introduced, the Department of Education said that no date had been set, and that its introduction would “ be considered in the context of the overall priorities and resources available in the system” when the syllabus is finalised.

And what about primary schools? There, civics is principally taught through Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE), and primary school teacher and Labour Party councillor Dermot Looney says the political elements focus mainly on the roles of different government positions and institutions. But he says that "it's not so important to learn about institutions of democracy but about democracy itself.” SPHE is typically taught for just half an hour per week as a standalone subject, and Looney believes it should get more time — at the expense of religious education, he suggests, which is allotted two and a half hours weekly.

Civic education is about more than just teaching the subject though. It’s about the entire school — after all, how can students be expected to become active democrats if they’re taught under an authoritarian school system?

“There are some who are happy to have education run in an authoritarian way,” Michael D Higgins said in 1992. “Theirs is a most unusual view: to be content to have education function as an autocratic, undemocratic institutional structure within a formal democracy.”

The ICCS study is less kind to Ireland on this front —  just 38% of students say they have taken part in decision-making at school. Student councils are a lot more common than a decade ago, but NUIM’s Gerry Jeffers stresses they’re just one example of student participation. “Student councils can contribute a lot but they have to be supported by a whole lot of other things,” he says. “How the school is run, how the teachers relate to the students — how much students rights are genuinely respected is the big issue.”

He says transition year offers vital lessons for making schools more democratic — the more relaxed atmosphere and reduced exam pressure means teachers have more time to listen to students. “Classes become much more democratic, more participative,” he says.

Mark Conroy believes that for civic education to flourish we must look outside schools, to cultivating a wider culture of dissent in society. “Our state was founded because of dissent and genuine political engagement, but since then each government has been a very conservative one, and none have encouraged dissent and civic engagement, or at least not in any meaningful way,” he says.

He says the media has “major responsibilities” in fostering dissent. It’s two sides of the same coin:  while the media must help create such a culture, students also need a curriculum that teaches them how to critically analyse endless messages from the media, politicians and special interests.

They need a curriculum that gets them asking questions. “The whole notion of power isn’t on the curriculum,” Jude Cosgrove says of CSPE. “I’m thinking the concept would be — why do some people have more power than others? How is power mediated, how is it perpetuated? Are there any working examples of power struggles that have resulted in new power structures? If you look at the curriculum a lot of it is sort of fact-based, kids maybe aren't maybe being taught to question… Why are some people in society less well off than others? Is that just? How could that be improved?”