A pioneering public-private partnership is giving new teachers a chance to sample life in both sectors, reports Joel Wolchover
In the marquee on the main lawn of Eltham college in south London, the school band plays jazz as gowned prefects serve guests strawberries and cream. It is, by anyone's standards, an impressive way to celebrate the graduation of 14 newly qualified teachers, especially when David Normington, permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills, rises to deliver the main speech of the afternoon.
His theme is the importance of fostering partnerships between state and independent schools, a sentiment with which the successful trainees who line up to receive their PGCE certificates can hardly disagree. For they are the first products of a small but significant experiment, the only teacher training course in the United Kingdom to bring together schools from the state and independent sectors.
The South London Teacher Training Consortium (SLTTC) is a group of 10 schools that have joined forces to offer an on-the-job teacher training course. The fact that four of the schools are independent - Eltham college, host of the graduation ceremony, charges full boarding fees of more than pound;15,000 a year - makes the project unique.
The first 22 trainees enrolled last September after two years of preparation, which involved hurdling a series of bureaucratic obstacles to secure funding from the Teacher Training Agency and have the course validated by the Open University. Each was given five weeks' training at the consortium's lead school, Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham college, a large city technology college in New Cross, south-east London.
Those who survived - eight dropped out during the nine-month course - were given three teaching placements, including at least one at an independent school, a first for a publicly funded scheme.
Consortium co-ordinator Simon Linsley stresses that the initiative is not designed as a "grow-your-own" solution to recruitment problems in south London, although organisers are pleased that five graduates have accepted jobs at schools in the consortium.
They are no doubt equally relieved that seven of the 14 successful trainees will start their careers in state schools, allaying fears that they'd all be clamouring for jobs in the private sector.
Rachael Touray, who took up her post at Budmouth technical college in Weymouth, Dorset (a state school but not a member of the consortium) in June, welcomed the opportunity to train on the job, without having to go back to college.
"It wasn't advertised except for a tiny reference in the Teacher Training Agency book. I was nine months' pregnant when they interviewed me, so I have to thank them for having faith in me.
"Before I started I thought, 'what's the point of putting me in Eltham college or Blackheath high (another of the independent schools in the consortium and a member of the Girls' Day School Trust)? That's hardly representative of the real world.' But I got so used to children listening to me and not talking over me that I now have high standards. I won't tolerate them leaning back on their chairs and talking to each other."
Fellow graduate Owen McDevitt, 31, enjoyed his placement at Trinity school, an independent boys' day school in Croydon, so much that he jumped at the chance of a job there - despite initial reservations about teaching in the private sector.
"I'm a British citizen but have lived in South Africa for 13 years. For the last year I was there I was teaching English at a business college in Johannesburg for students with weak school leaving certificates. When I came back here I struggled to get a teaching job. I had a degree but I didn't have a PGCE and I had to wait three years before I could get funded.
"I liked the idea that the course was based in schools and was more hands-on than university. I think it works from the trainees' point of view, because you get the opportunity to go to so many types of school.
"Initially I wasn't too sure I wanted to teach in an independent school. In South Africa I was teaching kids from the townships who didn't have much of an education, and I thought that's the sort of work I would like to do here.
"Now and again you bump into someone who rants and raves about how the independent sector is killing the state sector, and a lot of people have warned me not to get stuck in one type of school for too long. But I found that what works in one school invariably works in another. One thing you do notice here though is the amazing facilities, whether it's for sports or just being able to buy enough textbooks.
"Maybe in a perfect world all schools would be the same, but growing up in South Africa under apartheid I know that we don't live in a perfect world."
The success of the project is due in large measure to Haberdashers' Aske's headteacher, Dr Elizabeth Sidwell, one of only a handful of state school heads in the public schools' association, the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC).
When the HMC's 1998 annual conference proposed the idea of setting up a school-centred initial teacher training (SCITT) scheme, it was she who suggested a partnership between state and independent schools and offered to lead it.
"It's about a group of schools seeing that there's a problem and banding together to try to produce a solution - working together to produce teachers who are comfortable working in both sectors," she says.
"We recruit a different type of person to one who might want to go to university to train - more mature students, people who want to get hands-on training while they are doing a university-level course, trainees who might not have come into teaching otherwise."
The south London consortium is one of several SCITT schemes the HMC has sponsored, but the first to satisfy the TTA.
Vivian Anthony, the HMC's head of training and a former head of Colfe's, one of the independent schools in the consortium, says: "All the noises we heard from the TTA were encouraging. It was only when we got down to details that the problems arose. There was a huge amount of bureaucracy. We were obliged to go to planning sessions and then we spent weeks writing up submissions only to be told we didn't conform to the requirements.
"Schemes based around Ampleforth and Rugby schools were within an ace of going through but foundered on red tape. For example, we had to be able to show we could train teachers to deal with aspects of the national curriculum, although independent schools are not obliged to teach it.
"The HMC funded the initial efforts. A lot of that was based on a lot of people putting in many hours without being paid, but I doubt that we paid out less than pound;50,000.
"I understand that nobody wants to be shelling out public money on hopeless projects, but we are not exactly a fly-by-night outfit.
"We want to see more people coming into teaching, and, hopefully, some of them will consider the independent sector. Our graduates know what's going on in the whole profession and not just one part of it. That's a good thing."
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