Competence is no inspiration

14th June 1996 at 01:00
As an ex-student who has recently withdrawn from a PGCE course, my attitude to the "competencies" system of assessment in teacher training is unequivocal. It is farcical.

For those who have not had to endure the competencies system, here is a summary: the Government requires that all initial teacher education programmes aim to equip students with a set of prescribed competencies - one list for secondary students and a slightly different one for primary.

In Circular 992 (dated June 1992) the Department for Education (DfE) set out 27 competencies which newly qualified teachers were expected to be able to demonstrate. They span subject knowledge, subject application, classroom management, assessment and recording, and continuing professional development. Examples of competencies include the ability to "ensure continuity and progression within and between classes and in subjects" and to "create and maintain a purposeful and orderly environment for the pupils".

What in theory might sound an ideal concept, is in practice a bureaucratic ordeal. It seems ironic that while a principal aim of the competencies is to encourage students to reflect on their practice, so much time is demanded for collecting written evidence of competencies, signatures certifying the evidence, directories pointing to the location of evidence, pro formas to chart progress in achieving the competencies, that there is little time left in which to reflect.

One of the most galling things about this mode of assessment is that there is absolutely no correlation between being a good teacher and being able to prove the 27 competencies. The competence list is a check on technical skills and strategies and is therefore about quality control, but it takes little account of the benefits of more personal attributes such as patience, the ability to establish a rapport with pupils, and a positive attitude to teaching.

It neither recognises the changing nature of teaching, nor acknowledges the importance of insight, reflection, and improvement. Instead it values exclusively those who can boast technical skill.

Moreover, there are no guidelines for determining when a student can celebrate being secure in a competence. Who is to say how many times students need to demonstrate a particular competence before they can boast security in that area? Are two demonstrations sufficient?

Some Cs (I am sick of the word) are more easy to achieve and prove than others. For example, it takes little effort to produce coherent lesson plans compared with the task of providing tangible evidence for "a readiness to promote the moral and spiritual well-being of pupils".

No competencies are prioritised and students are expected to acquire the full range before they qualify.

This mode of assessment simplifies teaching, and fails to consider what is appropriate for different teaching contexts, different teachers and different pupils.

Further still, why should mentors in placement schools add to their already massive workloads the dull duty of checking that their students demonstrate each competency repeatedly, and tick endless little boxes as proof?

I do not have an alternative, but I am convinced that there must be a less chaotic, less ambiguous method of assessing student teachers: one which does not hinder trainees as they endeavour to become effective teachers, and one which does not pigeon-hole students through tickboxes.

What is needed is a far more holistic approach, with more emphasis on the moral dimension of education, and more weight given to professional judgment.

Anna Waters (22) has a degree in English and history of art. She lives in Kent and is working, through social services, with young people with special needs.

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