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Tales from the inside;Career development;Features and arts

Undergraduates can get a true taste of teaching on school placement schemes,write Ian Taylor and Liz McKernan

Placement schemes are one way of giving teaching a higher profile among undergraduates - especially those on science and engineering courses. But the schools must be chosen carefully and both teachers and would-be teachers must benefit.

But if students are to acquire a true taste of teaching, they must work in classrooms alongside staff who can demonstrate that teaching is a rewarding career.

Evidence from a recent graduate survey carried out by the University of Liverpool reveals that work experience was a positive influence on the decision of physiotherapists, occupational therapists and nurses to embark on professional training - a far more potent influence than messages from the media.

Many institutions run school placement schemes, enabling undergraduates to find out what teaching involves. Some do so while they are considering a career allied to teaching, such as speech therapy. The University of Liverpool's department of education has evaluated one such scheme, funded by the Teacher Training Agency.

The department also gathered evidence on a taster scheme developed by Sheffield Hallam University, and piloted at the University of Liverpool. This scheme aimed to address the serious shortfall in secondary science teacher recruitment by providing structured placements for second-year physical science and engineering undergraduates.

Teachers liked the scheme, believing that they had a responsibility to present their profession as worthwhile and rewarding. They felt that once young people embarked on university courses, especially in sciences, teaching became an "invisible profession". They saw it as "absolutely vital" that schools collaborated to raise undergraduates' awareness of teaching before they formulated career plans.

As one teacher explained: "In my second year I wouldn't even have considered teaching - I had no real idea what I was going to do. It was only when I actually saw the profession from the inside that I found it appealing."

Most of the teachers interviewed also remained enthusiastic about teaching, and acknowledged that they gained additional satisfaction from working with potential recruits - it helped keep them "alive and interested in the job".

Careful selection meant placements were in schools known to have a strong commitment to initial teacher training. The teachers acknowledged that a negative staff with their constant drip-feed of cynical comments would demotivate would-be teachers; they said students needed a supportive environment and contact with positive role models.

Interestingly, the teachers involved modified a series of activities suggested by the course organisers. Their main concern was to give students a "whole-school view of what it was like to be a teacher", rather than to focus specifically on science teaching.

They attempted to involve the students in a wide range of lessons - different teachers, age groups and abilities - and gave students the chance to participate in extra-curricular activities and to take registers. They encouraged the students to talk to as many members of staff as possible, including technicians and PGCE students, to help them to build up as full a picture as possible of school life.

The students also had the chance to work with pupils from an early stage. In this way, they developed an appreciation of "what it was like to work with children" - and the staff gained an extra pair of hands in the classroom.

Teachers stressed the importance of giving students these opportunities. As one explained: "It's those golden moments, when everything's right and you've got total attention from the kids, and you know they're getting something out of it. That's so rewarding. I try to give that impression to a student."

Ian Taylor is the director of the Liverpool evaluation and assessment unit, based in the department ofeducation at the University of Liverpool. Liz McKernan is a research associate in the same department

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