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Drop out or fail?

Damned if you do, damned if you don't. But there can be a positive side to being a post-PGCE statistic, says Mark Piesing

The summer term of Dave's PGCE didn't start well when a teacher from his department got so sick of the placement school he walked out. It got worse when his subject co-teacher warned him that his course tutor seemed determined to fail him. Days later, Dave, who asked for his surname to be withheld, found himself staring into a glass of red wine, a free man and a statistic. He had become one of the 15 per cent of secondary PGCE students who drop out every year.

According to an analysis by the University of Buckingham, while the number of PGCE students passing their course increased by 6 per cent in 2005, 15 per cent of the 15,200 secondary PGCE students did not complete their courses and 12 per cent of the 13,300 primary PGCE students also failed to qualify. Drop out rates varied wildly between institutions: 38 per cent of University of Greenwich secondary students left their course early, falling to 3.4 per cent at Loughborough University.

Like other mature teacher trainees, Dave, 38, was attracted by the prospect of a salary and job security. "After years teaching in language schools in the UK and abroad, I thought I wanted a more secure career than teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) and to non-English speakers (ESOL) could provide me with. I thought I wanted to teach in a proper school," he says.

He joined a secondary PGCE course in English and drama at a London university, but found he was the only mature student and the only male. And despite more than 10 years of language teaching, working in a secondary school proved a challenge.

"In TEFL you're trying to get people to talk, in school it seemed that you're trying to get them to shut up," he says.

Not only that, but secondary teaching seemed too prescribed, from the seeming rigidity of lesson plans and the national curriculum, to the tick-box nature of the PGCE. It was a great change from the more open and creative lessons that he had experienced in teaching English language.

"On my PGCE I felt that I was teaching just to satisfy the national curriculum, where in TEFL I felt that I was doing something useful." He felt that his age and gender made it difficult to discuss these issues with the primarily young and female recruits.

"Apparently I didn't follow the standard breakdown of a lesson closely enough. My tutor seemed unapproachable and my TEFL experience counted for nothing," he says.

It was no surprise when his subject co-teacher warned him that his course tutor was intent on failing him, following an unannounced visit to the school. But it was a shock when his tutors suggested he drop out to avoid a "fail". The school would provide him with a good reference so he could apply for a place on a graduate training programme and teach while he qualified. They even offered him work.

"At the same time that I hated school teaching, I was in the same school loving teaching English to Afghan refugees on a voluntary basis. If I dropped out, the school even offered to pay me to teach ESOL," he says.

"I began to feel that I wasn't sticking at it for myself, but to prove my course tutor wrong and show him that I could do it." So he left.

Dave isn't alone in his experiences. Keir, 26, who also asked for his surname to be withheld, was told by his university that he was set to fail his secondary history PGCE placement and that it would be better to drop out. The college said it would allow Keir to tell future employers that teaching just wasn't for him.

Discipline was his biggest problem. "It was just one placement, so the pupils remembered all my blunders from the early days and I couldn't shake them off," he says. "However, the placement school was happy for me to keep teaching to save them paying for cover."

Thankfully, the course ended on a positive note. Keir was enjoying teaching and had paid for the course so decided to stay and complete the PGCE. He finished his special project at a different school, and the resources he produced during those last three weeks on the Black Death went on to be used by other schools in the area, and were thoroughly enjoyed by pupils.

In private some of the other tutors told him that they disagreed with his course tutor's opinion, although they wouldn't go public at his appeal. He lost, as the school produced new reasons why he had failed. "Now I say on my CV that I studied for a PGCE, but I leave the qualifications blank," he says. He values the skills and experience he gained on the course and now works as an educational developer at a south coast university.

Peter Bennett, a senior lecturer in education at the University of Wolverhampton, isn't sure that institutions do enough to warn students who are on track to fail. "We as a profession are much better at telling people how to teach. We assume they'll know that they're failing," he says.

He feels that no one wants to talk about troubles in the classroom, even if, in some cases, alarm bells are ringing from the start. Perhaps it is no surprise that on average 25 per cent of trainees feel that the feedback and assessment on their PGCEs was less than good, according to the Training and Development Agency for Schools. Peter says that placements in some schools can stack the odds against students from the beginning. "It's the luck of the draw. There are some supremely easy and supportive placements, through to ones where the student teachers are getting no support at all," he says.

"In the end, getting PGCE students to drop out rather than fail the course is an attempt by colleges to fix the statistics. It looks better for an institution if a student drops out rather than fails."

Peter says that if a student is struggling on their course they need to make sure they talk to their tutors rather than try to hide it as a PGCE student, they have access to a massive amount of support.

If it's the placement that's the problem, they should start shouting about it, and the teaching college will have to move them. This could mean having to delay finishing their PGCE, but that is sometimes the price of passing.

But a bad observation may just be one person's point of view. Their school may have a different view of the student as a teacher, as they see them every day. Most importantly, students should always be seen to respond to any feedback given and to ask for solutions, Peter says. And if things are proving really tough, they should remember dropping out is always an option.

For Dave, the decision to drop out made sense when he realised that it wouldn't be the end of his teaching career, but perhaps the beginning. Without a "fail" and with the support of his school, he joined the waiting list for a graduate teacher programme while he investigated his opportunities in TEFL and ESOL.

Dave has since become a pastoral tutor and course director at an international study centre: "Teachers at my school kept telling me that I didn't have to finish my PGCE. In the end I realised they were right. I didn't."

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