October 31, 2012

An Incredible Achievement for Teacher Education

As a rule I try to avoid using this column as a way to blow the Centre for Cross Border Studies’ trumpet. But given the Irish and Northern Irish media’s almost total lack of interest in things cross-border, I sometimes can’t resist the temptation to tell a particular success story that the Centre is involved with.

One of these is the rather clumsily titled Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South, or SCoTENS as it is more commonly known. Who would have thought 14 years ago, at the time of the Good Friday Agreement, that the training of teachers would become one of the outstanding examples of North-South cooperation in the post-Agreement period?  It all sprang from one tiny mention in the text of that agreement of ‘teacher qualifications and exchanges’ as a possible area for cooperation. Two leading professors of education, John Coolahan at National University of Ireland Maynooth and Harry McMahon at University of Ulster, seized on this phrase to organise a well-attended conference in Belfast in 2000 to discuss how it could be built upon.

Out of this – with a two year gap to obtain initial funding from the Department of Education and Skills in the South and the two departments in charge of education and higher education (DE and DEL) in the North  – SCoTENS was born in 2002. In the past decade SCoTENS has ‘seed’ funded nearly 80 North-South research projects in educational subjects, including technology and maths, the teaching of science, history and geography, language teaching (including Irish), special education and inclusion, citizenship and diversity, and arts-based education, as well as teacher education itself. It has managed a programme which has seen over 170 trainee teachers do a central part of their assessed teaching practice, not in the comfort zone of schools near their colleges or in their home towns, but across the border in the other Irish jurisdiction. And it has held 10 international conferences – bringing leading speakers from Britain, Europe, North America and Australia – so that the annual SCoTENS conference is now seen as a ‘must attend’ event for anyone involved in teacher education on the island of Ireland.

The former Joint Secretary of the North South Ministerial Council, Tim O’Connor, has said that SCoTENS is a ‘superb example’ of what professional associations can achieve if they set their minds to working on a North-South basis. At a SCoTENS ‘away day’ last month the Professor of Educational Studies at University of Oxford, John  Furlong, said SCoTENS was ‘an incredible achievement’.

A team from Oxford University, led by Professor Furlong, last year carried out an evaluation of  SCoTENS’ first eight years. Their findings were ‘overwhelmingly positive. Despite limited and precarious funding, significant dependence on the goodwill of volunteers and the support of a paid secretariat with myriad other responsibilities [i.e. the Centre for Cross Border Studies], it has achieved an enormous amount. Many respondents felt that through SCoTENS they had developed a greater knowledge and understanding of the educational systems and practices across Ireland. Many of those we spoke to believed that the majority of the initiatives SCoTENS has led – conferences, research projects, the student teacher exchange programme – would simply not have happened without the organisation. Its leadership and administration were vital.’

Elsewhere the evaluators commented on the North-South student teacher exchange programme in the following words: ‘By giving the next generation of teachers the opportunity at first hand to experience a very different educational, social and political setting, the scheme was actively promoting the objectives of peace and reconciliation.’

SCoTENS held its 10th annual conference in Cavan earlier this month on the subject of creativity in teacher education, with addresses from Sir Ken Robinson, the visionary educationalist and expert on creativity (on video from the US); the Duchess of Abercorn, founder of the Pushkin Prizes for creative writing for Irish schoolchildren, and Professor Lisbeth Goodman, the alarmingly brilliant American who teaches creative technology  innovation at University College Dublin, and who was named Best Woman in the Academic and Public Sphere and Best Woman in Technology in the Blackberry Rim international awards in 2008. Those attending included the Ministers for Education North and South, Ruairi Quinn and John O’Dowd (who jointly opened the conference), and senior officials from both their departments and inspectorates.

As I said at the beginning, this is a ‘good news’ story that the Irish media have been almost completely uninterested in. Despite annual conference press releases and regular communications from me (a former Irish Times education correspondent) to education reporters on all the major newspapers, there has not been a single article on SCoTENS’ work in the past decade, other than an Irish Independent opinion piece by former co-chair Professor Teresa O’Doherty and a mention in an Irish Times profile of John Coolahan, probably Ireland’s most distinguished living educationalist, that the single thing in his long career that he was most proud of was the establishment of SCoTENS.

Andy Pollak