Do you become a teacher through intellect, reading, discussing, thinking and writing about the issues? Or is it a collection of behaviour, responses, routines and techniques that can only be learnt by trial and error and by working closely with successful practitioners?
The answer is both. But the complex balance between the two is being tested in the UK by School Direct, a school-led teacher training programme introduced in 2012, which will be the route into teaching for nearly 40% of all trainees in 2014-15.
The chance to talk, in a rigorous and focused way, about the complex situations faced by teachers, is something that is much appreciated by students who have chosen to go into teaching by taking a course at a university.
But there is also a considerable proportion of teaching that can only be learnt in the classroom – by getting your hands dirty and doing it. If this were not the case then we would all be able to listen to a teacher describe their brilliant lesson and then go and deliver it ourselves – an obvious impossibility.
What represents the ideal balance between theoretical study and practical experience? In the 1960s and 1970s it was mainly theory – school placements for teachers were brief, around 12 weeks (30% of the year). In the late 1980s until the present day, the balance swung in favour of practical experience. A typical university-route student on a Post Graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) course would be in a school for 23 weeks out of a 37 week course (60% of the teaching year).
Under the new School Direct system, trainee teachers may spend a similar amount of time in school and university, provided that there is a university partner. Other schools use a programme called School Centred Initial Teaching Training, and can have partners other than universities.
But some School Direct students, described as salaried, go into the classroom as soon as they start their course, and spend a very small time at university – around ten days spread over the year. Any other teaching that they get is the responsibility of the school at which they are employed. This is similar to the former Graduate Teacher Programme.
During their training year these students are paid as unqualified instructors and are expected to undertake their training largely outside teaching time. They spend very little time in a university and are perhaps the closest to the “practical only” end of the professional/practical balance.
You could compare this with the slightly older model of Teach First, which was originally set up to give future company leaders effective leadership training in a job before entering their main career. Top graduating students entered a 90% timetable after a brief, five to six week summer school. Once there they then receive a fortnightly tutorial visit from the university staff, and support from their host school.
Cost and effectiveness
The last set of figures that were readily available on the costs of different teacher training routes were gathered by a Parliamentary Education Committee looking at teacher education. Using data from 2008, they listed the following:
This was collected before School Direct began, but it serves to make some interesting points. At the time Ofsted, the school inspection agency, reported that the PGCE was the most cost-effective route, not only in terms of cost per head, but also in terms of the percentage of newly-qualified teachers who remained in teaching. For the PGCE at the time, 10% of all new teachers left in their first year and 46% left in the first five years.
The main reason for leaving offered by new teachers during their training year has been shown to be a perceived lack of support from the school, or the university. It will be interesting to see how this drop-out rate changes with the increase of the proportion of School Direct places.
The other major change is the requirement by the government that schools should only take on a School Direct student if they expect to have a teaching post to offer them at the end of the training period. There are very good reasons why this may in the event be impossible (a change in circumstances for the school, for example). But it is a potential source of student dissatisfaction should they have entered onto the training with the mistaken impression that this would always be the case.
A significant change has been who the state pays its money for the education of trainee teachers. Up until the start of School Direct, the university departments received the money. Now the money is paid to the schools and they then negotiate fees with their university partners.
In many cases this has led to university teaching ceasing to be cost effective. It is being cut back – or run at a loss. Bath and the Open University have both shut their teaching training courses. At the same time, the government has cut the number of teacher training courses allocated to universities by 15% for 2014-15, while increasing the number of School Direct places by 61%.
Fitness for purpose
None of this addresses the question of who should be teaching trainee teachers. Aren’t school teachers already fully employed teaching their pupils? For a school subject teacher it is a near universal rule in England that a teacher should carry a subject qualification somewhat higher than the level their pupils are working towards. GCSE and A level subject teachers are expected to have a bachelor’s degree in a related subject area, for example.
Should this apply to all teacher trainers? Teaching is an increasingly complex subject to teach. Should teacher educators teaching at a post graduate level not themselves already be masters graduates, or at least working towards that level?
Another key question that remains unanswered is what we are training our teachers for? Do we want our teachers to be enthusiasts and independent thinkers with a “moral and ethical” desire to “introduce children into worthwhile activities”, as the philosopher of education Richard Stanley Peters put it?
Should our teachers be a workforce dedicated to producing a new generation fit for life in 21st century England? Do we just want our teachers to be able to look after our children while we go to work? Or is the answer ll of the above – and much more?
If that is the case, then we should surely be expecting our teacher training and induction programmes to provide the flexibility to allow the trainees to respond to the varying needs that are placed on them. The worry must be that all trainee teachers get one opportunity. If that opportunity is flawed by expediency, inadequate preparation or short-term political views then it will be the teachers – and their pupils – who will feel the effects.