Dr Rowena Arshad's appointment as head of Moray House School of Education throws another spotlight on the fight for social justice and its place in the future of Scottish education.
Edinburgh University has appointed Dr Rowena Arshad, currently head of its Institute for Education, Community and Society, as head of Moray House School of Education. She succeeds Professor Cara Aitchison who held the reins for less than three years.
In 1848 the Free Church of Scotland’s teacher training moved to Edinburgh’s Moray House. For these 165 years Moray House has remained one of Scotland’s major initial teacher education centres, since 1998 as Edinburgh University’s School of Education.
It now delivers courses in community and youth work, sports sciences and management. Its Victorian past however remains potent and Scotland’s other university education departments are often perceived as more adventurous and dynamic in facing contemporary challenges.
The biggest of these challenges, Dr Arshad suggests is to have courage to recognise where change is required but also the confidence to hold onto what is good and effective, to consider how we embrace the next chapter in the professionalisation of the teaching profession and to agree the forms of strategic leadership we want for the sector through networking and partnership.
Dr Arshad acknowledges differences between England and Scotland: “I do believe in holding on to what is good in Scotland. Education here is still viewed as a democratic enterprise. There is still a strong belief in the importance of public education for all and a confidence in the professionalism of the teaching workforce.
“A strength in Scottish education is our aspiration for partnership models where excellence is taken forward in discussion with a range of stakeholders from government to communities and in so doing we try to remain focused on inclusion as well as meeting the needs of the 21st century market.”
She is cautious in defining the strengths of initial Scottish teacher education. “I would hope that our graduate teachers are confident in how they can deliver a challenging and stimulating curriculum for diverse learners. I know that we work hard to ensure our graduates become reflective and critical practitioners, able to create spaces for children to learn and be creative.”
A new orthodoxy is developing, that to challenge poor Scottish attainment and close the gap between the most and least affluent, pre-school learning must be prioritised.
Dr Arshad is cautious: “It is not just about throwing money at the pre-five sector but really engaging with pre-five educators and community workers and agreeing the plan and content of action together. Of particular importance would be pre-five children living below the poverty line. We know that poverty is correlated with underachievement from a very early age. If we can do something to disrupt that disadvantage, we should.”
Dr Arshad has a long history of engagement with issues of social justice. She believes that teachers who engage with social justice issues are better able to offer academically rigorous education that prepares learners for the Curriculum for Excellence’s four capacities. It is about reading, writing and attaining but also about how each learner can maximize potential. To get it right for every child requires educators to see beyond the four walls of a classroom to the bigger picture, to be aware of the institutional and cultural barriers which can limit potential.
Scottish education, Moray House and Dr Arshad all face challenging times. Her commitment to social justice and seeking consensus augurs well but Moray House requires decisive leadership and active engagement in the processes of change in which Scottish education is now engaged.
It also requires to refocus its energies on its original purposes, the training and professional development of the teaching profession.
Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.