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Real test of mentor scheme to come with hike in numbers

Since the probationer programme was introduced four years ago, there have been reports of new teachers feeling unsupported by their mentors or headteachers, but considering the sudden rush of probationers coming into the profession, they are few in number, writes Su Clark.

Research carried out by the General Teaching Council for Scotland last year, and the ongoing study by Jim McNally and his team at Stirling University into probationers' experiences, have found the vast majority content with the in-school support they have received.

However, the number of probationers is about to take another hike, from just over 2,700 this year to nearly 4,000 in 2006-07. Concerns are rising that the profession may not be able to cope, especially with the need to improve support to student teachers.

"We have come a long way professionally in our attitude to and support for CPD provision for our beginning teachers," says Kay Barnett, chair of the GTC professional standards committee.

"My concerns do not relate to the ability of the profession to deliver support for probationers but to the ability of the system to sustain the high quality support that we want, and are capable of offering our probationers, particularly at a time when more and more student teachers on school placement will also be entitled to, and are quite right to expect, support for their professional development."

While the real test of the mentor scheme may be next year, most, but not all, of this year's cohort are reporting positive experiences, and early indications from a survey by the GTC of mentors and supporters within school suggests they too approve of the scheme.

Steven Whyte

Computing teacher, Lasswade High, Midlothian

"This is the first year that my mentor has been a mentor and he has done a lot of research to prepare. I've done well out of it as he is a fantastic support, giving me confidence to come up with ideas for the department.

"One was how to encourage girls to do computing. I suggested a friend from industry came in to talk to pupils about women in IT, and my mentor backed me.

"He also organised for me to observe primary ICT lessons, which is something I didn't have an opportunity to do on my PGDE and to spend time in the pupil support base. I'm also doing a swap with a computing probationer at another school to experience what she's been doing and to meet her mentor, so that we can compare notes."

Kirsty Flattery

Business education teacher, Deans Community High, Livingston, West Lothian

"My department has an open door policy and, as my mentor is my principal teacher, I've had fabulous support from the start. I feel confident I can go to her anytime with a problem.

"We have twice-weekly meetings, covering topics relevant for my final profile for full assessment, such as assessment for learning, reports, class and behaviour management, literacy and numeracy.

"I have a second mentor in the senior management team whom I meet with regularly, along with two other probationers.

"It does mean there are a lot of meetings but it hasn't been a problem.

Sometimes my departmental mentor will set me tasks instead of meeting and then we will discuss them at the next one.

"I've also had a lot of support from the other probationers in the school; there are seven this year. We have sessions together and we recommend CPD we've done or resources we've found. It's nice to have people in the same position."

Jennifer McNicoll

Maths teacher, St Andrews Academy, Saltcoats, North Ayrshire

"My mentor is the principal teacher of maths and when I first started we used to have weekly meetings. Now we meet roughly every other week.

"But I see him through the day as we are in the same department and we have weekly departmental meetings where I am encouraged to bring up issues relating to CPD.

"The whole department has been excellent, answering any of my queries and sorting out any problems. They supported me in an action research project I did as part of my CPD, advised me in writing parent and guidance reports, guided me through Assessment is for Learning and different learning techniques, and let me observe their classes. Having the 0.7 of the timetable has allowed all this.

"It has been an intensive two years. I was in industry for 13 years before my PGDE. I've had to do a lot of work to get up to date with the curriculum and the 5-14 guidelines, so the support I've had has been crucial. I never realised teaching was so fast paced."

John Mackay

PE teacher, Charleston Academy, Inverness, Highland

"There are four probationers at my school this year, two in the PE department. Our mentor is the depute head, which has advantages because he has an overview and can talk about policy and procedures.

"We have one period a week when we all meet to discuss issues or work together on a project.

"Our mentor has been able to organise other departments to lead sessions for us or for outside speakers to meet us. Last week an educational psychologist came and gave us a talk.

"It's good being part of a small group of probationers. I don't feel isolated and we are able to share experiences and bounce ideas off one another, especially with two of us in the one department. We've been able to support one another on our projects.

"I've produced a booklet about PE and Standard grade for S1s and S2s, while Mhairi Johnston, the other PE probationer, has been working on the Standard grade curriculum."

But the scheme hasn't been a positive experience for everyone.

Anonymous primary teacher "My mentor had a very negative attitude from the beginning. When she found out that she had to have another probationer next year, she made the comment in front of me that it should be like jury service and you should only have to suffer it every seven years.

"Even on my initial visit to the school she made it clear she didn't want me in her department. I never said anything to senior management because I was afraid it would jeopardise my chances of passing my probationary year, so I've had to grin and bear it, putting up with her negative comments at departmental meetings.

"I don't speak up now at all because she uses it as an excuse to put me down in front of other staff.

"To give her credit, she has made time for two 40-minutes meetings each week, but she is incredibly negative and never gives me advice on how to correct all the faults she finds with me.

"Other teachers have been more supportive and the feedback I've had from them, including senior managers who have observed my classes, has been favourable, which has helped my confidence.

'My concern is that next year's probationer may not be so resilient and won't be able to cope with her attitude or lack of support.

"I plan to mention it to the senior management team before I finish, because I don't think it has been down to just personalities. She didn't want me here."

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