Minister Farry’s case for transforming Initial Teacher Education in Northern Ireland is based on (i) professor Pasi Sahlberg’s “Aspiring to Excellence” report and (ii) the extent to which the “premia” paid to Stanmillis and St Mary’s University Colleges represent value for money.
The argument I’m about to make does not involve selective use of the data published in the Sahlberg report. I draw my conclusions based on all the data presented in the report. That data supports a conclusion which is, in effect, the opposite of that published in the report. The logic of the data is that the Minister should reject the Sahlberg findings and restore the premia.
Sahberg favours a model of teacher education which is research-intensive and informed by sharing/integration and suggests options for realizing this approach. The central conclusions of the Sahlberg report are based on data derived from the PISA league tables. But the data in the report refutes entirely the report’s conclusion. The data supports the case for the teacher education model offered by the Stranmillis and St Mary’s – one which is not research-intensive and which the Minister would almost certainly characterize as resistant to sharing and integration. In short, the Sahlberg data supports the case made by the Minister’s critics.
The two universities, for example, focus mainly on post-primary teacher education. Queen’s University, in particular, makes much of the research-intensive nature of its mission. Moreover, Minister Farry is likely to view the model of teacher education on offer in the two universities as meeting appropriate standards in respect of sharing and integration. However, the Sahlberg team uses PISA data to conclude that the achievements of post-primary education “gives cause for concern.” His report notes in respect of post-primary schooling that “Northern Ireland, like other UK countries, was below the average of the OECD countries and came third of the UK countries.”
Stranmillis and St Mary’s, on the other hand, focus mainly on primary teacher education. According to the recent Research Excellence Framework survey, neither college could be characterized as research-intensive. Moreover, it would be reasonable to conclude that Minister Farry would regard the university college model as failing to meet acceptable standards in respect of sharing and integration. Despite this the standards achieved by primary school children in Northern Ireland are the envy of the world.
According to the PIRLS/TIMMS league tables, Northern Ireland primary schools were best in Europe, and sixth best in the world in mathematics. The primary schools were also second in Europe for reading and fifth in the world. One newspaper described Northern Ireland primaries as the finest primaries in the English-speaking world.
The correct conclusion to draw from the Sahlberg report’s data is that the teacher training on offer in the colleges produces pupil outcomes of truly international quality. This is the reverse of the conclusion drawn by Sahlberg’s team. If, like Sahlberg’s team, one invest one’s trust in international league tables and accepts a causal relationship between teacher training and subsequent pupil performance in international league tables, one is forced to the conclusion that, at the very least, the role of research and sharing/integration in teacher education are being greatly oversold.
Finally, in respect of the premia, this seems a small price to pay for exceptional educational returns in the two basics: mathematics and English.
To read the Report see