Elizabeth Buie looks at the question marks over Glasgow's teacher training future

APRIL 1, 1999, will go down in the annals as the day when Scotland's only dedicated Catholic teacher-training college ceased its independent existence.

The formal merger between St Andrew's College of Education and Glasgow University took place last week to much enthusiasm not only from the higher echelons of St Andrew's and Glasgow University as well as many currently involved in teaching in the Catholic school sector in the West of Scotland.

But under the surface some doubts remain, if the concerns of Professor Eric Wilkinson, formerly Head of Department of Education of Glasgow University and now Director of Higher Degrees of the new Education Faculty, are anything to go by. While supportive of the merger in principle, he has expressed concerns about the motives of the Catholic Church, claiming that a certain right-wing faction of it in West Central Scotland is imperialistic to the extent of wishing to turn the clock back to before the Reformation and hoping to use its new-found position within Glasgow University to begin that process.

These anxieties might be somewhat allayed, he said, if the college's subsumption into the university were to act as a catalyst to open up a debate about the relevance of the 1918 Act which protects Catholic schools' denominational status within the State.

The merger creates a ninth faculty for the university, its first since 1977, and takes in the university's Department of Education, Department of Adult and Continuing Education, Teaching and Learning Service, Centre for Science Education, and St Andrew's College.

The vision is of a multipurpose education faculty in which teacher education and the study of education are provided in the context of a thriving, multidisciplinary research environment. Another benefit in the eyes of Glasgow University is that, with increasing scrutiny of teaching standards within universities, the new faculty will provide greater expertise in that field.

The new faculty will also mean the construction of a new #10m hi-tech building at Gilmorehill beside the university library, due for completion by 2001.

Questions remain over the fate of the college site in Bearsden. Located in one of the West of Scotland's most desirable residential areas, its resale value has been put as high as #11m-#12m. That, however, was before the college's hall of residence was given a conservation listing six months ago as a prime example of Scottish 1960s higher education architecture. The local community and local councils have expressed support for the site to retain an educational function.

Glasgow University Vice-Principal Professor Rick Trainor, who has steered the negotiations for the university, said that there had been two major factors behind the merger - the argument of the Sutherland Report of two years ago that teachers are best educated in a general university environment, and the financial difficulty experienced generally by relatively small institutions with high administrative overheads.

Professor Bart McGettrick, former Principal of St Andrew's and Dean of the new Faculty of Education, talks of the future in lyrical terms, saying: ''We ought not to let the memories of the past be a substitute for the dreams of the future, nor let those dreams be dimmed by excessive caution. The future seems bright if we are to seize the opportunities which now exist.''

He added: ''The rationale for the merger has been entirely academic and not financial.''

The advantages for St Andrew's College, in his eyes, are access to a more varied approach to teacher education including the study of education as an academic, research subject, as well as the current teacher training, and more varied course types not possible in an autonomous institution.

''Increasingly, teacher education is going to have to look at research and research activity,'' acknowledged Professor McGettrick. ''In my view, we also should be much more involved in other subject areas such as social policy and urban planning and these areas of activity are a bit remote from teacher training.''

He accepted that there had been concerns about a loss of St Andrew's unique Catholic identity, but stressed that it was now time to seek a new identity that embraced inclusion rather than isolation.

The Catholic Church had taken a very active interest in the conditions of the merger and had had to be satisfied that the the conditions agreed with the university were sufficiently supportive of the maintenance of the Catholic education ethos.

Among those conditions are an agreement to set up a Board of Catholic Education to oversee the training of Catholic teachers and the teaching of religious education according to the Catholic tradition.

The St Andrew's merger is, of course, the latest in a series of such moves - Jordanhill with Strathclyde University, Moray House with Edinburgh University, Craigie with Paisley University. Northern College is currently in discussion with Aberdeen and Dundee universities to achieve a similar merger - few would anticipate such talks ending in failure. But St Andrew's is distinctive because of its denominational ethos and traditions.

Reaction from those involved in denominational schools in the West of Scotland has been largely positive. Mr Jim McVittie, headteacher of St Ninian's High School in Giffnock, probably speaks for many of his colleagues when he says that he believes the Catholic Church is satisfied that the new faculty will continue to be mindful of the ethos of Catholic teaching.

He adds that there will be benefits in terms of research opportunities that were not available within the college. ''We have to trust that people like Bart McGettrick have put in safeguards so that the needs of Catholic schools are not lost sight of.''

Mr Peter Mullen, former headteacher of Holyrood Secondary School in Glasgow, Scotland's largest state Catholic secondary, and currently the Roman Catholic Church's representative on Glasgow City Council's education committee, has nothing but positive comments about the merger.

''It will bring much-needed resources to Catholic education, it will expose them to a much greater academic stimulus and a greater accent and emphasis on research that the Church would welcome very much. I look on this in a very positive way - I hope there will be advantages on both sides, and that St Andrew's College and the Church will bring a new dimension to the university's education department,'' said Mr Mullen.

''A great deal will depend on the Catholic members on the board. It will be extremely watchful and forceful and it is up to them to ensure that the Catholic ethos we had in St Andrew's will be carried on at the new campus,'' he added. But it is the very power of that board which concerns Professor Wilkinson.

Initially, the new faculty will take in only trainee teachers for Catholic schools, eventually opening up its facilities to non-denominational students. However, he predicts it will be a ''struggle'' to achieve this and warns that Strathclyde University's Jordanhill teacher-training facility will continue to attract the bulk of non-Catholic trainee teachers.

''I am concerned about standards,'' he said.

Education studies at Glasgow University have achieved a worldwide reputation, said Professor Wilkinson, and he is anxious that these should be maintained.

He added that the college is acknowledged as having a low research profile. He is also concerned that tense negotiations over the merger have allowed the weight of decision-making powers to be given to staff moving over from St Andrew's - a feeling, he believes, is shared by some senior professors at the university.

Of the 14 senior appointments made so far in the new Faculty of Education, 10, including the dean, Professor Bart McGettrick, are from St Andrew's College.

''The concern is that their ethos and way of working will mean that it will take some time to create a research culture that could be sustained at such a high level. We have managed with a small number of students in the past to get a proper balance between research and teaching people at post-graduate and under-graduate level,'' said Professor Wilkinson.

From the experience of similar mergers at Exeter, it can take at least 10 years for such mixed marriages to settle down into a comfortable cohabitation but, according to Professor Wilkinson, it is by no means certain that the passage to such a happy relationship is assured.