Sustainable school-university partnerships
Partnerships between schools and teacher education faculties have many benefits but need strong support from both universities and the schools sector if they are to be sustainable, according to a new study commissioned by Teaching Australia.
The study set out to identify the characteristics of effective, sustainable university-school partnerships.
These partnerships during the initial preparation of teachers are critical to the quality of pre-service teacher education programs.
As the 2007 House of Representatives report Top of the Class noted, 'teacher education is a shared responsibility'.
In carrying out the study, the research team headed by Victoria University's Tony Kruger identified a wide range of university-school partnerships in teacher education, and chose seven to be the subject of detailed case studies.
While the team found all of these partnerships to be highly effective, they concluded that without more institutional recognition, such partnerships will probably remain small in scale.
The study found successful university-school partnerships often rely heavily on the efforts and goodwill of dedicated individuals at the local level, and are not systematically supported by institutions and systems.
Partnerships in practice
Though not commonplace, exemplary partnerships are widespread throughout Australian teacher education.
Most, though not all, are relatively small in scale, involving partnership teams with no more than a handful of teachers and teacher educators working with a few pre-service teachers in schools.
One impressive partnership brought together pre-service teachers, a teacher and a teacher educator in an outdoor education program in one school. The pre-service teachers gained vocational education qualifications in outdoor skills such as snorkelling in preparation for their work with school students.
In another partnership, a teacher educator re-structured an inclusive education unit in a four-year Bachelor of Education so that teacher education students were directly working with local students identified as experiencing learning difficulties.
One university-school partnership studied was embedded throughout the pre-service program. This program was organised around applied curriculum projects nominated by schools for pre-service teachers and teachers to work together on a school student learning priority. A key characteristic of this partnership was its focus on successfully addressing the learning needs of students in the school.
Making a partnership work
The Victoria University study identified three key characteristics of effective and sustainable partnerships - trust, mutuality and reciprocity among pre-service teachers, teachers and other school colleagues and teacher educators.
Effective partnerships don't just happen. Stakeholders need to apply explicit resources to initiate and sustain them.
Each stakeholder has to contribute personal and professional resources, in the form of passion, commitment and professional understanding and expertise to make the partnership work. Partners must also be willing to contribute their professional understandings in a shared language within the partnership.
And for the partnership to be sustainable, stakeholders must bring along ongoing institutional resources. The formal integration of partnership activity in university course and assessment requirements, for example, is a strong incentive for teacher education students to become engaged in the partnership.
Effective and sustainable university-school partnerships offer benefits to everyone involved, particularly if they have three key characteristics.
First, a focus on learning for all stakeholders. School students' learning is the central focus of an effective partnership, enabling links to be made between school needs and priorities and pre-service teachers' skills and interests.
Second, the partnership leads all stakeholders to take on altered relationship practices. The practical core of the effective partnership is the professional relationships that the partnership initiates. These relationships are enacted through conversations among pre-service teachers, mentor teachers and teacher educators.
Finally, an effective partnership constructs new enabling structures that span the boundaries of school and university. The partnership gives stakeholders the space to initiate new learning relationships, valuing the contributions made by each partner.
The next step
While effective and sustainable university-school partnerships depend on local effort and enthusiasm, they may not survive without more institutional support from education systems, education faculties and universities.
The research identified a number of key characteristics of a supportive institutional context at both the university and school level.
Universities can support partnerships by embedding partnership practice as a formal component of university coursework, establishing assessment requirements linking partnership work to formal university coursework and allowing university teacher educators to include university-school engagement activities in their acknowledged workload.
Several conditions must also be present at the school level for partnerships to be established and sustained.
First, the school principal must be supportive. Part of the principal's role is to ensure that all participants fulfil their agreed obligations. Principals also encourage teachers to take up partnership opportunities.
Second, the partnership must be connected to an agreed school need.
Third, teachers must not feel the partnership is simply an additional workload pressure.
Finally, the allocation of defined responsibilities to at least one school staff member appears to be important for the maintenance of partnership activity.
These institutional conditions help to make effective university-school partnerships sustainable over time.
The researchers developed a set of inquiry tools that partnership participants can use to reflect on and report the characteristics of their own situations.
This methodology enables teachers, teacher education students and other participants to actively investigate and develop their own partnership activities, rather than rely on external evaluators or researchers.
Both the full research report and the set of reflective resources are available on the Teaching Australia website .