Casualty figures

9th February 2001 at 00:00
Students are dropping out of teacher training courses, shocked by the pressures they face. Steven Hastings talks to those in the front line, and, overleaf, one man tells his own story.

Lie-ins, partying, clubbing until late and ambling along to an occasional lecture - the life of a student.

Late nights preparing lessons, leaving for work at dawn, facing a class of noisy teenagers and keeping on top of your own coursework - the alternative life of teacher training students.

No one has ever claimed the life of a trainee teacher is easy, and most students enter their course knowing that along the way there will be sacrifices. But many find the going much tougher than they imagined.

Emma is a 21-year-old who opted to take the undergraduate route to qualification at a Midlands university. She has decided not to complete her final year. "I was set on being a primary teacher," she says. "I was convinced it was the right career for me. You hear all the time how demanding and stressful teaching is. But part of you thinks 'Oh, it's just teachers whingeing.' You think you'll cope with it, that it can't be as bad as people make out.

"But you soon realise they're right. The workload is terrible. I've been up until midnight planning lessons, then up at six the next morning running through my preparation. When you're not being paid, and when you're living in a house full of 'normal' students who are going out and enjoying themselves - well, you wouldn't be human if it didn't get you down."

Emma also feels let down by her training provider and says the support she has been offered has been "pathetic". By way of illustration she talks of how the department was due for an Ofsted visit and her name was put on a reserve list of trainees due for observation.

"It was a hugely stressful time. I would lie awake at night worrying. I had no support from the university. No one took any time to make sure I was prepared or to look at my work."

Huge workload? Late nights? Pressure of an inspection? Welcome to the profession, some teachers would say.

"When I went into school to start my teaching practice," says Emma, "the first thing someone in the staffroom said was 'You must be mad. What do you want to get into teaching for?' At first I thought he was joking - I mean everyone moans about their job. But he kept urging me to seriously reconsider."

The Teacher Training Agency is relaxed about such reports. Despite the current recruitment crisis, it maintains that the number of students failing to complete their training - by whatever route - is no cause for concern. One Department for Education and Employment source estimates that about one student in seven drops out before the end of his or her course. A similar number probably complete their training but never embark on a career in the classroom.

"It's an inevitable problem," says Fiona Eldridge, regional recruitment officer for the Teacher Training Agency. "We offer every support we can and there are new initiatives which haven't taken effect yet. But people drop out of medical school or law school. They drop out of ordinary degree courses. Teacher training is very intensive."

There is a suggestion here of natural selection - a case of survival of the fittest. But many of the students who are turning their backs on teaching are exactlythe type that the profession can ill afford to lose.

Professor David Reid, director of Manchester University's PGCE course, says: "A student came into my office two weeks ago. He told me he'd had Ofsted inspectors in a lesson who had been rude, intrusive and ignorant. He wasn't prepared to be treated like this for the next 40 years. He quit there and then. He had the makings of an outstanding teacher.

"Teaching is a caring profession. The people who make the best teachers are sensitive, caring people. If you apply the cut-throat tactics of the business world, you will drive away the most promising talent."

Most students report positive experiences in the classroom, but are deterred by government diktats, paperwork and the feeling of being undervalued. And the pound;6,000 payment to PGCE students has caused resentment among undergraduate trainees paying their own way.

"It seems unfair," says Amy, a 22-year-old on an undergraduate BA (Qualified Teacher Status) course in the north of England. "We feel like second-class citizens." She plans to pursue a career in secondary teaching - at least in the short term. But she admits that it's a not a decision she has found easy.

"I still want to be a teacher. Having spent four years training, I feel it would be a waste not to give it a try. I've wanted to be a teacher since I can remember. It's hard to admit you were wrong. But I am thinking of working in an independent school, which I would not have considered a few years ago."

Amy claims it is not the work with the children that has made her think twice, but the frustrations of the course. "I want to go into teaching in spite of my training, not because of it. We went back for our second year, and they told us to forget what we'd learned in our first year. We went back for our third year and they said forget what you learned in your second year. The goalposts are shifting all the time. It's soul-destroying.

"The time when you're in the classroom is still fantastic. I love watching children progress. I think instead of offering bribes to get people to train, the Government should focus on making the job itself more attractive and cutting down on the paperwork."

It isn't just those who are facing up to the challenges of work for the first time who find the demands of teacher training a culture shock. Privately, many training co-ordinators admit courses, especially the PGCE, are too intensive and suggest that too much time is spent on the classroom frontline.

Training can seem more demanding than a first job - and most students will never again face quite the same combination of pressures. But few realise this. Thinking it will stay this way throughout their careers, some cannot wait to jump ship.

Even those used to a working environment struggle to adjust. In fact, mature students swapping careers are often among the first to reconsider. "An engineer came to us, claiming he was bored stiff of engineering and wanted to be a maths teacher," recalls Tom Roper, head of initial teacher training at the University of Leeds.

"Half way through his PGCE he called it a day, because he could not believe the hours he was having to work - evenings and weekends. He found teaching a lot more interesting than engineering, and taking a pay cut didn't bother him. But he wanted a life."

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