Countdown to qualification

12th January 1996 at 00:00
Heshe hasn't got enough oomph.' David Wright reveals how examiners decide who should be awarded qualified teacher status. How is a pass defined on your teaching experience? The short answer is - it isn't. But without a pass, there is no qualified teacher status, and hence no teaching job, for anyone on a BEd or PGCE course.

The Government has imposed competences on student teachers, with very little consultation. Clearly, competence is preferable to incompetence. But when over 20 separate competences are specified, the list can be daunting. The problems increase when the statements of competence are used for assessment. Only the most heartless assessors would use ticks for each criterion. Worse still, each criterion can be graded. But each tick will be subjective (Who saw what, when? Who says what is an adequate standard?).

Even if these questions are resolved, what is a "pass"? Presumably the only people who will answer "17" or "20" are those who believe that the secret of the universe is "42". Teaching cannot be quantified. But student teachers have to pass - or fail. It seems clear that there is still a need for the "whole person" assessment that has been used in the past.

This article discusses some of the ways that qualified teacher status has been decided, in meetings between teachers, lecturers, and examiners. The details of the meetings are confidential, but generalisations can be made on the basis of extensive experience of such meetings. The basic criteria now need to become public knowledge. There are several phrases which are often used when discussing whether a student teacher should pass. Here they are in print - possibly for the first time. Some of them are not as straightforward as they seem on first impression . . . If you eavesdropped on an examiners' meeting, these are some of the phrases you might hear: * I wouldwouldn't want himher teaching my children. When expressed positively, this is a high recommendation. Professional educator or not, everyone wants the best for hisher children. To want an inexperienced teacher is a very big compliment, and it reinforces professional judgment very powerfully. But that statement is more often used in a negative way. We all want the best - but we cannot require everyone to be as outstanding as our ideal. It is thus a much more suspect criterion in the negative form.

* I wouldwouldn't appoint himher if there was a suitable vacancy in my school. As a positive statement this is high praise - in fact, much higher praise than is often recognised. The school has seen the student warts and all, and yet is willing to make this positive statement, irrespective of how good other applicants might be. But as a negative statement, it should not mean that the student is necessarily a failure. The statement needs to be set in the broader context of supply and demand.

For example, Norfolk is a popular area for teachers, for numerous reasons (city, countryside, schools, etc). Therefore a wide variety of good applicants can be expected for any advertised vacancy. It is perfectly possible for an adequate student to be rejected decisively for a teaching post. Yet less than 100 miles away, a combination of less attractive environment and less attractive school buildings, andor higher house prices, may make recruitment of any teacher for a specific vacancy very difficult indeed.

Teacher-training that takes place in Norfolk provides teachers for a less-favoured area as well. It would thus be unreasonable for this negative criterion to apply to Norfolk student teachers. This example can be paralleled in many other areas, such as Devon.

* Heshe hasn't got enough driveenergyoomph.

This student is not automatically a failure. Some teachers teach very successfully without the elusive oomph; some pupils thrive with an oomphless teacher. A different style of teaching may be an asset rather than a handicap.

* Heshe can't control the kids. But it is much harder to take over classes mid-term than to start as a "real" teacher in September. Besides, there is a long tradition of giving hell to student teachers. If lack of control is linked to total lack of rapport, and an apparent dislike of pupils, this is indeed a fail; otherwise it may well be a pass.

* Heshe is all right in this school, but might not survive in a "tougher" school. This student should pass. One cannot fail anyone on supposed inadequacy. Long experience suggests that a "tougher" school strengthens a student teacher. I have often been surprised and impressed with the positive effect an inner-city school can have on an insecure student teacher.

* Heshe has got a job already. This should not sway the judgment. A late vacancy will create a temporary problem for a school. This is less hard to hear than an appointment which the school will live to regret.

* Heshe can't afford to retake. It is easy for teachers and tutors to be swayed by the harshness of no grant and high tuition fees, and so to give the student the benefit of the doubt. This again is unwise: the pressure should be to change the harsh treatment, not to change the criteria for QTS.

There remain the imponderable factors: is there a personality clash with a teacher or tutor?; is persistent catarrh the cause of mediocre "presence"? (a serious question as many student teachers readily succumb to pupil germs); does charisma excuse some hasty marking of work?; conversely, does earnest thoroughness compensate for lack of charisma?; is dissatisfaction with the national curriculum a fault or a virtue?

Even these unanswerable questions can and will be resolved by discussion. Discussions at examiners' meetings range far and wide, and last long. Eventually decisions are made. Professional judgment is the final criterion. It does not please the politicians, and so they place faith in the new system of assessing competences. My conclusion is that the move to competency-based assessment will only work if it is set in the context of holistic professional judgment by teacher trainers and teachers.

If mentors give you a hard time over your "competences", try asking a simple question: "How many competences did you achieve on your teaching practices?" You will soon find a more human personality emerges. Teaching is a complex activity, and competence takes time to develop.

David Wright is a former lecturer and teacher trainer at the University of East Anglia and is now an author and school inspector. The opinions expressed are his own

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