Tom Hamilton, GTCS Director of Education, Registration and Professional Learning
‘How would you feel about completing the training exercise in the Maldives?’
An interesting question to be asked in an email from a colleague working for the World University Service of Canada.
However, the next sentence gave a little more context and a pause for thought.
‘Dubai has fallen through as the Afghans can’t get visas for there but the Maldives government is prepared to accept them for a working visit.’
So what is GTC Scotland doing in connection to Afghanistan? Well, making a contribution to the development of its Initial Teacher Education (ITE) system, that’s what, through being part of a Canadian government financed scheme entitled the Teacher Certification and Accreditation of Teacher Training Institutions in Afghanistan (TCAP).
Which is why I recently spent four days in Malé, the capital of the Maldives, presenting on the GTC Scotland approach to the accreditation of ITE.
My fellow presenters were one from Canada and two from New Zealand; all very experienced academics who had worked extensively internationally and knew about accreditation systems from various parts of the world. The audience was 14 staff from the Afghan Ministry of Education, 10 male and four female. We also had the support of one Afghan technician and two translators, one male, one female.
And I had two days of leading the input to explain, debate and defend the Scottish approach to the accreditation of ITE.
Arriving a day early I was privileged to hear my Canadian and New Zealand colleagues give excellent presentations on the academic underpinnings of accreditation systems and key points about their place within the governance and quality assurance of education systems. This was really good to have heard before my presentations as it allowed me to give greater emphasis to some points and also to provide practical examples of issues that had been presented in a theoretical manner on the day I observed.
I began with some contextual background about Scottish education and GTC Scotland and its central role within the education system. The Afghans found the GTC Scotland role fascinating and were very clearly struck by the notion of an independent body carrying out the functions that GTC Scotland has. They were senior civil servants, and no matter what country they come from civil servants always see things through that governmental lens, so to have an independent body taking forward what they saw as government tasks was very thought provoking for them.
I explained how GTC Scotland’s Council is constituted with a majority of members being elected registered teachers, but also having places for nominated members and, finally (and very importantly), places for lay members. I explained about the need for GTC Scotland always to act in the public interest and stressed the difference between a professional regulatory body and a union. I explained the significance of GTC Scotland reporting to Parliament rather than to the Scottish Government. This last point is a subtlety for many in Scotland but the Afghans, as government officials, quickly understood the significance.
I told them about the powers of GTC Scotland to determine teaching qualifications and the programmes that lead to them. I stressed the Scottish Standards for teachers and the Guidelines for Programmes of ITE in Scotland and I explained our process of accreditation through which all Scottish ITE programmes must successfully pass in order to run. I elaborated how our accreditation panels are constituted and stressed the necessity of having independent external members as well as GTC Scotland Council members on the panels. I stressed the need to have absolute probity in the process with declarations of interest and the avoidance of conflicts of interest.
I explained at some length the need to have organisational mechanisms to ensure the processing of documents, making sure that practical and logistical arrangements work. We talked about the necessity of having a clearly identified Servicing Officer to act as a guide and adviser to the panel, and also acting as note taker and report writer.
I presented on the roles of those on accreditation panels and stressed the importance of the Chair’s position. We discussed collegiality and how to encourage openness from ITE providers so that the process was seen as rigorous but not punitive.
A lengthy section was reserved to how the decision-making process was completed. Should the programme be accredited or not? With or without conditions? With recommendations? What’s the difference between conditions and recommendations? The Afghans accepted that GTC Scotland has 50 years of history and experience on which to draw but they still found it difficult to accept that panel members could come to a consensus on a decision simply through discussion. They wanted (and are probably right to want at this early stage of the development of their processes) clear guidelines on scoring systems with overtly stated criteria on which a decision would be based.
They asked really insightful questions and were often several steps ahead of the presentation, jumping to the really key features of processes. They engaged extensively in debate with me and the other presenters. They engaged extensively in debate amongst themselves which was really gratifying to see as it suggested that my presentation was relevant to their system and its developments.
All in all it was two fascinating and really worthwhile days.
My final half day with them was a visit to the Maldives Qualifications Authority (MQA) where they met the Maldives Education Minister and heard about the role of the MQA: a mixture of SQA and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education here in Scotland. I found this really interesting – which probably says something sad about my own interests! Also of real interest to me was how the MQA, with permission, had made extensive use of the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework. Scottish educational influence indeed.
Now, for those of you picturing me lying on a sun kissed, desert island beach, let me tell you something about Malé, the capital of the Maldives. Malé is on an island less than three kilometres in length, an island which you can walk round in 45 minutes, with a population of 150,000!
Space is clearly at a premium so they simply build up on any available piece of land, with multi-storey buildings everywhere. There’s only so many roads you can have on an island that size but they still appear to have a lot of cars – and then there are the motorbikes. I’ve never seen so many motorbikes, and no quarter is given to pedestrians. You took your life in your hands every time you stepped off the pavement. (Indeed the Chief Executive of the MQA was only just back at work after being seriously injured having been knocked down by a motorbike, while he had been parking his!)
And can I just mention the weather which was in some ways remarkably like Scotland for most of the time I was there – low cloud and poor visibility, blowing a gale and punctuated by torrential downpours. But admittedly it was also 30 degrees … unlike the 4.5C it was when I returned to Edinburgh.
Am I over egging the weather pudding? Perhaps, because on my last day the sun did come out, and then it was far too warm. Typical curmudgeonly Scot.
And what about the Afghans? They were fascinating with some genuine cultural differences to contend with. They were smart folk with senior posts within the Afghan government. They had lived through really difficult times and yet they all believed in the power of education to improve things. In 2002 there were hardly any pupils in Afghan schools, and certainly not girls. The school system now has 13,000 schools with 9,000,000 pupils, although they admitted that that still doesn’t include many girls in remote areas. Afghanistan used to have four teacher training colleges and now it has 48. There are now 180,000 teachers in Afghanistan but the civil servants were open about admitting that over recent years the focus had been on quantity, while they now needed to begin to focus on quality, hence the desire to accredit teacher education programmes.
The male-female dynamics of the group were also fascinating with the four women civil servants deferring to their male counterparts in making points or asking questions. They were clearly valued colleagues but the culture was of the men speaking up first and then the women coming in later. Not quite what you would expect of Scottish civil servants – and certainly not of Scottish teachers.
That said, one of the women spoke good English and in conversation with her one morning I asked what they had done the previous evening. The women had gone to the cinema. And what had they seen. Well, obviously, the film of the moment – Spectre.
So, some cultural differences but also lots of things in common including a belief that education can make a difference, that the quality of teachers matters and that Initial Teacher Education has to provide the foundation for a teaching career. Was it worth my travelling a long way to make this input? That’s really a question for the Afghan audience but my perception of their interest levels and engagement was that it really was worthwhile, gave them food for thought and spread the word further about the success of Scottish education.