The Open University runs the most popular PGCE course in Britain, with 1,000 trainees. But this is not old-style distance learning: students and tutors communicate via state-of-the-art technology, and the drop-out rate is low. The OU claims its flexible methods attract people who otherwise would be lost to teaching, so does the future of training lie with modems and e-mail? Maureen O'Connor reports
Which university can claim that 50 per cent of its graduates are interested in teaching as a career? Which university boasts that half its primary PGCE students have maths, science and technology qualifications? Which university was a few years ago getting 15 to 20 letters a week from frustrated graduates urging it to move into post-graduate teacher education?
The last of these questions should give the game away. The answer to all of them, of course, is the Open University, which, with the help of Pounds 2.5 million development money from the Department for Education and Employment, introduced a PGCE course in 1993. Last year it became the first teacher training course to win a Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education.
There are now 1,000 graduate students on the OU's 18-month part-time course, which is split into two primary and eight subject-based secondary programmes. Primary applications outstrip places by nine to one, while at secondary level science is the most popular subject. Students with access to English-language schools are taking the course as far away as Cyprus, Germany and the Benelux countries.
What is the secret? Professor Bob Moon, a prominent former headteacher turned teacher-trainer, headed the OU team which spent a frantic two years testing the market and developing distance-learning materials. Moon believes he has tapped into a new and rich seam of recruits who will be of enormous benefit to the profession.
The average age of the students is 33, which means they are old enough to have overcome the negative image of teaching that many students have when they graduate, says Moon. They have experienced other careers, such as medicine and the law, and now they are looking for something different.
But many of them are at the stage of their family lives when they cannot afford to give up their current jobs to study full-time or even travel to take a conventional part-time course. So they opt instead for 18 months of part-time distance learning at home while continuing with their existing careers or domestic commitments.
The course uses all the expertise the OU has built up since the Sixties about how mature students can succeed as distance learners, with some added innovations. The basic packages of materials, the face-to-face tutorials, and the regular day-schools, are tried and tested. But the PGCE course has broken new ground for the OU, not least because, to meet national criteria, it must include teaching practice.
The course is organised in three stages, each finishing with spells of three, four and finally six weeks in school. Many students take unpaid leave from their jobs to enable them to fit in the school practice. The placements are spent in a single school, which the students themselves are asked to nominate when they make their initial application. The OU then checks out the school's suitability and agrees the mentoring system. If the placement goes ahead, the school receives Pounds 1,000 for participating in a training programme that is individually tailored for each student. Two weeks is also spent in a second school to give wider experience.
The demands on schools are substantial, though the benefits are not all one way. The aim is to integrate the student into school life as fully as possible, with advice on individual lessons, weekly formal meetings with mentors, and the involvement of other staff. One mentor commented to the course organisers: "What has been most useful is the opportunity to reflect, to discuss, to experiment and to see progress. This applies as much to me as it does to the student."
Bob Moon thinks that the OU's existing good relationship with teachers, many of whom have taken OU courses themselves, has stood them in good stead in finding more than 1,000 schools willing to take on OU students.
The other unique aspect of the course is its use of information technology. Every student is loaned an Apple Mac computer, printer and modem for the duration of the course. The modem enables students to access a series of on-line facilities: they can send and receive mail and documents, consult their tutors, access information and join in real-time "conferences" that enable isolated students to consult staff and each other. The software prefigures an electronic campus where teachers and students can be in constant touch.
And it seems to work. Consultation is instant, personal and often heartfelt. Two students who got to know each other by exchanging worksheets electronically recently got married. But most of the communication is professional. A primary trainee, for instance, recently asked: "Has anyone perfected the art of fitting in time to listen to readers on a regular basis whilst the rest of the children work on meaningful activities?" Another complained: "A Year 7 pupil said to me: 'My dad doesn't want me to learn French.' What do you say to a pupil who is getting active discouragement from home?" In the secondary subject conferences there is a constant exchange of ideas and references.
The advantage for tutors is that the system can tell them who is doing what at any given time. If any worries arise, they can invite a student for a private on-line chat, just as they would face-to-face at a conventional university.
When the students have successfully completed their course the IT hardware is passed on to the school where they did their teaching practice. What the schools who ultimately employ the OU's newly qualified teachers get in addition to subject and professional competence is invaluable computer literacy which can be shared with future students and colleagues alike.
Inevitably some students drop out because the course is unsuitable or too demanding. But at less than 10 per cent, Bob Moon says, the drop-out rate is much lower than for many OU courses. On completion, 70 per cent of successful students are going straight into teaching jobs, which is in line with conventional PGCE courses, but Bob Moon suspects that in the long run the employment figures will be better. Some students complete their course before their family commitments allow them to take up a full-time job.
"Given the level of commitment they have to show to get through this course, I suspect that in the end those who succeed will stay in teaching longer, " he says. Student numbers will eventually reach 1,600, making the programme the largest single PGCE course in the country.
"I think what we have discovered here is that there is a pool of talent which can be attracted to teaching, so long as the route is flexible enough. There is going to be a real problem with training enough people in existing institutions in future, not only in this country but all over the world. The OU is already talking about the PGCE course to interested institutions in America and France. The idea is going to spread."