Integral to the mission

Peter Finn, Principal of St Mary’s University College, answers agendaNi’s questions on the future of teacher training, unemployment among newly qualified teachers and a single teacher training college.

Where is Catholic education in 2009 and how has this developed over the years?

St Mary’s core educational endeavour is still teacher education and as far as I am concerned that will always be the case. Our teacher education provision is set in the framework of the philosophy of Catholic education. St Mary’s subscribes to a vision and a philosophy of education in the Catholic tradition, which is universal in nature but which is interpreted and enacted at the local level in order to be consistent with the needs of our particular time and place. There are in fact over 1,300 Catholic universities and colleges and thousands of Catholic schools worldwide.

Today Catholic education at all levels is in an era of reflection and renewal which is very stimulating for all of us who are involved in it. His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, in an address to Catholic educators in the USA in April 2008, stated: “Education is integral to the mission of the church to proclaim the Good News.”

The out-workings of Catholic education globally and, of course, locally in Northern Ireland are there for all to judge. The evidence points to extremely successful educational institutions which make significant contributions to human as well as socio-economic development.

Given that the college’s mission is to make a distinctive contribution in the Catholic tradition to higher education in Northern Ireland, is a merger with a state college possible?

I am aware that down through the years there have been ‘champions’ for a merger between St Mary’s and Stranmillis. No doubt these people were well-intentioned but I believe their energies and efforts would have been better spent in considering ways in which high level collaboration and partnership could have been achieved between the two colleges. Stranmillis University College is of course a state college but, in my personal view, it has also a distinctive Christian ethos in the Protestant tradition which I have experienced and valued very highly throughout 26 years of collaboration with that college. Therefore the possibility of greater collaboration was always there if creative thinking and targeted funding had been applied to arrangements which would have protected autonomy while at the same time promoting sharing but without the requirement to merge on a single site in south Belfast.

Have job shortages affected the amount of applications to the college in recent years?

In short that is not the case. This year St Mary’s has witnessed a 28 per cent increase in applicants for BEd places over the 2008 figure. The evidence is clear – there is still a very high number of people who wish to undertake courses of initial teacher education in Northern Ireland and St Mary’s is a very popular choice. No doubt the applicants are aware of the high level of student satisfaction at the college and there is also the fact that the Guardian University Guide 2009 ranked St Mary’s 8th in the UK league table for education.

The Department of Education and Department for Employment and Learning are currently carrying out a review of teacher education. What needs to change to make teacher education better?

The review started in April 2003 so we are now close to its sixth anniversary and still without an outcome. In my opinion this suggests an uncertainty regarding strategic leadership and that has not been good for teacher education in Northern Ireland.

It is my view that teacher education in Northern Ireland is very good. We are fortunate to be able to recruit highly qualified and very motivated people into initial teacher education [ITE]. They receive an excellent education through BEd and PGCE programmes and they are well supported when they take up teaching posts. But very good situations can still be improved upon. At the ITE level I believe we can enhance the quality of school-university/college partnerships and as for in-service education it is my view that the higher education sector should be enabled to make a more substantive contribution to the continuing professional development of teachers than is presently the case.

Many teachers are forced to move to England, Scotland and Wales to find positions. What can be done to resolve this problem?

There is a problem with the lack of employment opportunities in teaching in Northern Ireland which cannot be ignored. Every year hundreds of local people take up ITE courses in Great Britain, are trained to deliver different curricula, and then return here seeking employment. That is their right, of course. But it is not appropriate in my opinion to continue reducing places at the local providers when at the same time the return of GB-trained teachers remains unregulated. If one extrapolated the present trend to an extreme and unacceptable conclusion, the authorities could stop all local training of new teachers and rely exclusively on the GB returnees.

Stranmillis’ Principal, Dr Anne Heaslett, believes the Northern Ireland Executive should consider the guaranteed induction year policy, which operates in Scotland, to help newly qualified teachers here obtain employment. Do you share her views?

Anne is a good friend and colleague of mine and she is correct to identify the guaranteed induction year policy as a proactive step in school improvement. The policy is not just about employment, however. It enables newly qualified teachers (NQTs) to undertake the second phase of their training, namely, induction. Additionally it would enable Northern Ireland to build on the initiative being rolled out in England of making teaching an all-masters profession.

In England NQTs will soon have the opportunity to study for a masters degree in teaching and learning and have it funded by the TDA [Training and Development Agency for Schools]. But at the end of the day the issue is one of financial allocations to education departments, and it should be noted that education in Scotland has been prioritised by the Scottish Government to such an extent that staff-pupil ratios have been reduced significantly, and that is the result of an investment in teachers.

Has St Mary’s been successful in trying to encourage applicants from the Protestant community?

At St Mary’s we welcome applicants from the Protestant community and our Widening Access Officer actively promotes this in state schools. However I recognise that due to the fact that the college has a Catholic ethos and also that it is located in the heart of west Belfast, some of those from the Protestant community may have reservations about enrolling in the college. The college will continue to work hard to overcome those reservations and positively welcomes applications from those in the Protestant community. Further we are trying to encourage recruitment of staff from outside the Catholic community and in the past ten years have recruited staff not only from the Northern Ireland Protestant community but from elsewhere in the UK, from other EU countries and from the United States. In the case of our liberal arts provision I am delighted that some young people from the Protestant community have chosen this programme.

Profile: Peter Finn

Peter has been employed at St Mary’s (originally St Joseph’s College of Education) since 1982 and had a number of study breaks and secondments in the intervening years. He started as a teacher of geography, took on board international work in 1992 and then managed the introduction of the liberal arts degree in 2000. Peter was appointed Senior Tutor for External Relations in 2002 and Principal of the college in April 2008. He is married with three children to Bronagh, who is a primary school teacher, and enjoys sport, particularly forest walks and exercise in the gym, and reading a good newspaper on a Sunday morning.

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