Fresh-faced and clued-up

29th September 1995 at 01:00
Gerald Haigh describes how the national curriculum is enabling new teachers to introduce some valuable insight. Once upon a time, staffroom folklore said the best way for a young teacher to make mental space for the demands of the classroom was to forget everything they had learned at college.

The national curriculum, arguably, has changed all that by providing a common theological foundation for professional competence. And because the national curriculum was written by the kind of experts commonly found in higher education, teachers reckon new colleagues ought to be able to provide up-to-date information about it.

Some final-year student teachers at Bishop Grosseteste College, in Lincolnshire provided anecdotal evidence to support this last assumption. All of them, it seems, had felt able to talk confidently about the national curriculum during their teaching practice and at job interviews.

In some cases schools had sought out the students' expertise, particularly in classroom assessment, which is a strong feature of the Grosseteste course. History student Abigail Willetts found that her practice school "was very keen" to look at the material she had. Nicola Heesom added: "Schools also wanted copies of our actual assessments of their children, to include in their own records."

The perception is that student teachers, unlike many of their classroom counterparts, have time to read the documents, try out techniques in school and discuss their experiences in follow-up tutor groups. One exercise for Grosseteste students is to bring back pieces of children's work which then form the basis of discussion on how to reach agreed standards in classroom assessment.

At Whitchurch High in Cardiff, a large comprehensive which took nine NQTs last year, deputy head Brian Williams says that, with a few exceptions: "Students are far better prepared now. The people we have employed here have usually been very well genned up."

And at Kelsall primary in Cheshire, head Phil Rowbotham says: "New teachers are well versed in understanding national curriculum requirements. In school they are then given the opportunity to practise that understanding - it's a matter of being able to use the knowledge and communicate it." Pat Nancollis, deputy head and mentor of NQTs at Kelsall, also speaks highly of today's teacher training which is "highly focused on assessment, on ways of managing time, on record-keeping".

All this has implications for the induction of today's new teachers. Mo Clegg, who works with NQTs in Cheshire, finds: "They're more critical; more aware of what they need. They don't look at experienced colleagues as gods. Not all heads are very good at handling this." Mr Rowbotham reckons NQTs are "much better at self-evaluation than many experienced teachers".

Induction programmes for NQTs, therefore, have to be carefully planned and go beyond the basic nuts and bolts. As Ms Clegg puts it: "They want to go to a school and see how science, for example, is organised - how continuity and progression are handled."

At the same time, there are basic training gaps to be filled. The typical one-year PGCE course is very crowded, not least because it includes large chunks of school experience. As a result, coverage of curriculum areas beyond the student's degree subject can be sparse, particularly for those going into the primary sector. Donna Keenan, a science graduate who joined Kelsall as a new teacher two years ago, feels: "What we did was good, but there was simply not enough time - I did a total of eight hours on history, for example. "

One problem for student teachers is absorbing the structure of the national curriculum: what the key stages are and how levels line up against them; what a level description is, as opposed to a programme of study.

The answers are in the document itself, but the task of teasing them out will be made a little easier by the publication this autumn of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority booklet A Guide to the National Curriculum. It is aimed at trainee teachers, and replaces the National Curriculum Council publication Starting out with the National Curriculum. About 100,000 copies will be produced and bulk-mailed to all initial teacher training providers.

The guide eschews history and background (this is presumably the responsibility of the institutions) and goes straight into an explanation of the curriculum's structure, and then, in a section called "Using the Order", gives pointers about planning. It is designed to be used alongside the national curriculum document, and includes facsimile pages from the document itself, annotated with explanations.

Sue Brindley, SCAA's professional officer with a brief for ITT, explains: "This is not a substitute for the work which the colleges do, but a starting point. The institutions were extremely keen to have a document like this."

In the end, though, there is always the question of whether knowledge of the national curriculum is the sole, or even the main measure of the competence of a new teacher. Already there is a feeling that because it is relatively easy to frame questions about the statutory document, interview panels may concentrate on the national curriculum at the expense of, say, probing a candidate's understanding of children.

Interviewers do seem aware of this, although Mr Williams points out that a candidate's lack of knowledge of something this well documented, might indicate a deeper problem.

"We've had more than one person who couldn't tell us anything about their own subject in the national curriculum," says Mr Williams. "We asked one candidate what he thought about the post-Dearing situation, and there was no guilt or attempt to waffle - just an admission that he didn't know anything about it. It's an indictment of their own pride if they haven't the energy and motivation to read it up."

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