A different route to school

12th February 2010 at 00:00
A sizeable chunk of career changers enter independent schools without teaching qualifications. The practice is not without its critics, but as David Matthews finds, many heads regard it as a blessing

Philippa Hooley was a family law solicitor desperate to switch to teaching. In a career where success meant a divorce or a child being taken into care, she craved the "positive outcomes" of the classroom. "In a school, that's what you get - the lightbulb moment," she says.

Her dreams of becoming a teacher seemed to founder, however, on the cost of doing a PGCE, while the school where she did work experience found it "too unwieldy" to set her up as a graduate trainee. So she switched to a route into the classroom that needs no training whatsoever: teaching in an independent.

There seems something counter-intuitive about needing more qualifications to teach in a state school than in one that can charge thousands of pounds in fees. But while maintained school teachers must gain qualified teacher status (QTS), for independent schools no training is required.

Mrs Hooley has now spent 16 months in an independent school, teaching business and economics at Dame Alice Harpur School in Bedford. The small classes have been a big help in her introduction to the profession. "I was lucky because I had a smiley class of nine girls rather than 30," she says.

While there is no shortage of routes for teachers to work in state schools - PGCE, the Graduate Teacher Programme (GTP), an undergraduate degree with QTS, Teach First, or a six-month crash course aimed at ex-City bankers - they all involve a teacher qualification. This is set to change, however, with the Government's decision last week to allow school workers without QTS to become fully-fledged members of the teaching profession, making the non-QTS route open to state schools.

There are no firm statistics on how many people currently choose this route, although anecdotal evidence suggests that a sizable chunk of new independent teachers do. Although the Independent Schools Council (ISC) says the majority of new teachers enter the independent sector with QTS, as recently trained newly qualified teachers (NQTs), some schools employ up to five non-QTS teachers at a time, and even have positions open only to untrained graduates.

For new teachers, particularly graduates lumbered with student debt who are reluctant to embark on another course, independent schools can offer the immediate entry to a paid, full-time job that a PGCE cannot. After finishing an English language and literature degree at Oxford University in 2008, Kate Johnson did not want another stint in education. So when she received an email from her university tutor about a position at Tudor Hall School, a girls' boarding school near Banbury in Oxfordshire, she jumped at the chance.

"I didn't want to have another year studying - I wanted to get straight into a job," she explains. "I also prefer learning by doing." She is now enjoying her second year of teaching English from Year 7 up to sixth form.

It can also be a way of scoping out the profession without making the big commitment to training. After 14-and-a-half years' experience in business, working everywhere from Mars confectionery to Twinings tea, Lucy Clarke wanted to switch to teaching. The opportunity came when a major career change by her husband forced them to move house.

Yet with a 14-month-old child, she didn't have the time or money to pursue a PGCE or the GTP. Her way into teaching had to be unconventional. So she used a hobby, sailing, to land a job as an instructor in 2008 at Thornlow Preparatory School in Weymouth, Dorset. On the strength of her first term, the school asked if she would like to teach literacy and numeracy to a reception class.

"I thought getting experience in a school would help with a PGCE or GTP application," Clarke says. "I didn't anticipate they would employ me as a full teacher - but I thought I'd give it a shot.

"It's important for an individual to work out whether teaching is for them before moving down the PGCE or GTP route, because it's a huge commitment."

Many independent schools have training systems of their own to guide non- QTS teachers through their first year. "The support was fantastic," says Ms Johnson, who was given a 50 per cent timetable and works alongside five other teachers who also don't have QTS. "One of the reasons they employ recent graduates is that they have a system of mentoring. I felt like I was training on the job."

While she did not think the lack of training was a problem, the first term was tough, she admits. "I did feel challenged," says Ms Johnson, "but I never found that it went too far." Yet some struggle when it comes to marking work. "Starting day one, with limited experience, it would have been of benefit to attend a course on how to assess the children," Mrs Clarke says. "I had to Google `Early Years Foundation Stage'. I think I delivered it, but I had to put in a lot of extra hours."

As many independent schools are set up to take on unqualified teachers, the staff reception tends to be positive and supportive. The only hostility Philippa Hooley found came from outside the staffroom. "The only incident was with one of the non-teaching staff. The vibe was that only trained teachers should be teachers."

With backgrounds in everything from tea to Virginia Woolf, it is hard to pin down what kind of teacher a non-QTS route creates. But Kenneth Durham, headmaster at University College School, an independent day school in London, thinks he has seen a pattern: "The biggest single difference if you go straight in from university is you teach as you were taught at school. You tend to do what worked for you. This I why I encourage them to observe other styles of teaching."

They may have got into the profession without it, but training is still the ultimate goal for many non-QTS teachers. For Steffan Griffiths, who went straight from university into a job in 1995 as a classics teacher at Tonbridge School, an independent boys school in Kent, completing the GTP while he was at Eton a decade later allowed him to enrich his skills. "The more I taught, the more interested I was in the teaching process. I wanted to teach better, and to reflect on how I taught," he says.

He was also keen not to be boxed in at independents. "I didn't want to be in a position where I couldn't move sectors," he says. Although he has no plans to move away from his current independent school, Magdalen College School in Oxford, he sees no reason why his path into teaching should prove a stumbling block to the state sector. "With QTS, I should make a plausible candidate to a state school. All routes are valid if you have the right people doing them."

Ms Johnson, on the other hand, is keen to switch sectors at some point. "I think I'll go to the state sector to see both sides, particularly as I'm from a state school background," she says. But she admits it might be a rather different environment: "As it's been so nice starting in the independent sector, it might be difficult."

The figures suggest she would be in a minority, however. Just 4.8 per cent of teachers starting in the independent sector in 2005 have moved to state schools. The proportion is likely to be even lower for those entering teaching with no qualifications, because of the extra hurdle of obtaining qualified teacher status.

This high retention rate is just one of the reasons independent headteachers take on non-QTS teachers. They might also be more concerned with a teacher's academic background than their training, says Judith Fenn, head of schools' services at the ISC. "Heads basically look at qualifications and experience. Some will say the quality of degree is the number one priority rather than the teaching qualification," she says.

Mr Durham appointed a non-QTS teacher in September. "In any appointment, I would seek the best candidate. They might not score well in teacher training, but we are also looking for intellectual verve and extra- curricular talents," he says. Not having QTS "is not a hurdle that is insuperable. We would always make any candidate teach a sample lesson".

Others, like Mrs Hooley, turn experience in previous careers to teaching, commonly in sport and science. "They'll take people who have a specific expertise," says John Richardson, national officer for independent schools for the ATL teaching union. "Teachers might have been, for example, champion rowers or hockey players."

Schools are also interested in teachers' connections to elite universities, says Jim Houghton, a Cambridge graduate without QTS who teaches Spanish and French at University College School, north London. He says all the teachers he knows who have followed a similar route have been to Oxbridge. "A lot of pupils are looking towards Oxbridge and it helps to have a teacher from there," he adds. "I think parents look for it on the staff list."

To many heads and budding teachers, the option to appoint untrained teachers in independent schools is a blessing. But others, including John Bangs, assistant secretary of the NUT, believe the practice undermines the profession. "For those who are uninformed about teaching, it begs the question: `Why do we need qualified teachers when some get on perfectly well in the independent sector?' Nothing could be further from the truth," he says. "It is in no way, shape or form training for teaching in the state sector."

As teacher training places are cut, applications rise, and the majority of PGCE bursaries are slashed by a third, graduates and those looking for a career change may increasingly see getting QTS as difficult and costly - and for those embarking on their teaching careers, independent schools can make it unnecessary.

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