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Promoting Quality in Teacher Education

UCET Northern Ireland: Independent Review of Education report

Summary

1. International recognition of the importance of teachers and teacher education The importance of teachers has been long-recognised as central not only to the educational and personal development of children, but also to societal wellbeing and economic growth (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD], 2005, 2018; Larsen, 2010). The OECD goes so far as to say that, ‘the quality of an education system depends on the quality of its teachers’ (2018:20). It follows therefore that the knowledge, processes and practices of initial and continuing professional learning are fundamental in ensuring the highest quality teachers are in place to meet these individual and societal aspirations. With this in mind, in most international contexts, there has been an increasing ‘problematisation’ of teacher education focussing on the extent to which it is perceived to support academic and economic development. The subsequent policy focus has promoted increased prescription and a focus on ‘evidence-based ‘best’ practice’ (Helgetun and Menter, 2020). In England for example, the policy trajectory has led to the development of a discourse on teacher learning as a process of ‘training’ (DE, 2010), accompanied by ongoing deregulation of the process by moving this training increasingly into schools and out of colleges and universities (Mayer, 2021). There is a strong emphasis on the achievement of ‘professional standards’ and more recently, a complete market review of the teach

A full copy of the report is available to download below.

Universities Council for the Education of Teachers (Northern Ireland) (UCETNI) Response to the Independent Review of Education

THE IMPORTANCE OF TEACHER EDUCATION

1. International recognition of the importance of teachers and teacher education

The importance of teachers has been long-recognised as central not only to the educational and personal development of children, but also to societal wellbeing and economic growth (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD], 2005, 2018; Larsen, 2010). The OECD goes so far as to say that, ‘the quality of an education system depends on the quality of its teachers’ (2018:20). It follows therefore that the knowledge, processes and practices of initial and continuing professional learning are fundamental in ensuring the highest quality teachers are in place to meet these individual and societal aspirations.

With this in mind, in most international contexts, there has been an increasing ‘problematisation’ of teacher education focussing on the extent to which it is perceived to support academic and economic development. The subsequent policy focus has promoted increased prescription and a focus on ‘evidence-based ‘best’ practice’ (Helgetun and Menter, 2020). In England for example, the policy trajectory has led to the development of a discourse on teacher learning as a process of ‘training’ (DE, 2010), accompanied by ongoing deregulation of the process by moving this training increasingly into schools and out of colleges and universities (Mayer, 2021). There is a strong emphasis on the achievement of ‘professional standards’ and more recently, a complete market review of the teacher training providers along with the implementation of a Core Content Framework for Initial Teacher Training (DE, 2022).

2. Teacher Education in Northern Ireland

The situation in Northern Ireland (NI) is different, particularly from that in England. Firstly, the discourse is not one centred on ‘Training’, but rather ‘Teacher Education’ and more recently a move towards ‘Teacher Professional Learning’ (TPL). This perspective on the teaching profession was established by the General Teaching Council for Northern Ireland (GTCNI, 2007:5) and it is fundamentally one of teaching as an intellectual and values-based profession. They state,

teaching can never be reduced to a set of discrete skills to be mastered in some mechanical process of assimilation. To adopt such a reductionist approach would be to deny the intellectual basis of our work, and the richness of the ongoing dialogue and learning that enhances our professional practice.

Secondly, there is a much greater simplicity in terms of the structure of Initial Teacher Education (ITE) with only two routes (4 year BEd and 1 year PGCE) through the two universities (Queen’s University, Belfast [QUB] and Ulster University [UU]). In the case of QUB, the BEd programmes and some PGCE programmes are provided by two colleges of the university (St. Mary’s University College [SMUCB] and Stranmillis University College [SUC]), both of which are specialist institutions of teacher education, providing 100% of undergraduate teacher education in the region. As long-standing, specialist institutions, the colleges provide a particular form of ITE which is much less representative of that to be found across the rest of the UK landscape, but which is still apparent across many European countries (ETUCE, 2008). It is one in which student teachers, from the outset, are inculcated into a values framework and a way of thinking, in terms of developing their knowledge and understanding of teaching as a profession and their role as practitioners.

Thirdly, there is very robust regulation of the system through accreditation, by the GTCNI[1], an inspection process conducted by the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI), and finally, because all of teacher education is university based, there are rigorous quality assurance procedures and processes related to higher education such as external examining, annual programme review and in-depth periodic review in accordance with the UK Quality Code for Higher Education (QAA, 2014). Effective and appropriate quality assurance measures are obviously of extreme importance, but the processes adopted in NI are based on self-evaluation, working collaboratively and in partnership in a shared enterprise.

Issues around the recruitment and retention of teachers in NI have never been as challenging as in other regions of the UK and indeed in many international contexts also. Whilst there are some variations and challenges related to specific subject areas, in general, recruitment to ITE programmes is highly competitive, attracting well-qualified students with a strong sense of vocation. Similarly, retention has never been a critical issue or a problem in this region with teachers who come into the profession, tending to stay.

Effective partnerships and collegial relationships are central to quality teacher education (Lillejord and Børte, 2016). With regard to relationships across all the key stakeholders in education, these have grown in strength, particularly in recent years where collaboration and collegial working has become increasingly evident. It should be pointed out that the Department of Education for Northern Ireland (DENI) and the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers, Northern Ireland (UCETNI) have been particularly effective in supporting this trend. Of key significance are the relationships between the universities and university colleges and the schools which operate differently to other regions in that they are non-contractual. Schools support student teachers as part of a professional commitment which may be conceived in terms of a ‘relational contractualism’ (Rawolle, Rowlands and Blackmore (2017:114) based on collaboration, trust and core values. It could be argued that this characteristic of the system emanates from its relatively small scale and the shared understanding that the vast majority of practising teachers will have with their mentees, having come through the same route/s and/or institutions themselves.

In contrast to other regions, there is no prescriptive curriculum for ITE in NI. Fundamentally, ITE programmes are designed to reflect the Core Values and Competences of the GTCNI Competence Framework (GTCNI, 2007) in order to prepare students to teach the Northern Ireland Curriculum (NIC) and the relevant subject areas of the post-primary curriculum. Competences are different from Standards in that they see TPL as an ongoing and developmental process rather than a standard to be achieved. As such, they are not prescriptive but rather, allow for individuality to support teachers in developing knowledge, understanding and professional practice within their specific contexts.

[1] In 2021, the General Teaching Council was stood down by the Minister of Education but its functions remain operational under the Department of Education (DENI, 2021).

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