High ideals and lessons of the market
"I'm sure everyone would like a nice, peaceful, well organised school where the staff are supportive," says Mireille Circus, currently in her final year of a four-year course at Moray House Institute of Education, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh. Her classmates Kenny O'Brien, Lucy Cramb and Lorna Berry agree. All of them have had placements in five schools so far - and all of them have met at least one school which fulfils what they agree is their ideal.
But the B.Ed course also lets them know, through experience, that the ideal is unlikely to accord with reality.
"The job situation is desperate," Lucy Cramb says. "We don't have the luxury of picking which school we will go to. At this stage the first priority is to complete the degree."
Lorna Berry says: "I'll get my degree and worry about the job situation later. I want to qualify, and qualify well - and even then I'll have to accept that I may not get a job."
These are students whose motivation is much stronger than that of their counterparts a teacher generation ago - and they live in a world in which competiveness is all - even within the course.
This year they will find out whether they become honours graduates or not, and which grade they will attain. And after that, they know, four years of hard work can be blown in one interview.
They also know that their choice may be between what Kenny O'Brien describes as "atrocious" schools and none at all. Lorna Berry reckons that on placement she has been in four of these, to one she would rate "good".
So what constitutes a good school for a first appointment? Conventionally, Mireille Circus says, it is the kind of school where the pupils are the kind of children your mother would have liked you to play with. But such schools, they all agree, may not meet the new teacher's needs. Kenny O'Brien says: "I've been to schools in places where you wouldn't walk alone at night, but the staff are much better to get on with, because they all have to pull together."
Lorna Berry, however, says: "I've done placements in rural schools where the staff are so close-knit they don't want to know anything about you." The nub of the issue, as Mireille Circus says, is that the staff should be supportive: "You come across barriers where experienced teachers are not familiar with the system we are being taught - the 5-14 in-service has not reached them yet, and their anxieties create barriers for students on placement."
Lucy Cramb says: "We bring out their own insecurity. If they are used to having students, we are welcomed - but they're thrown if they haven't seen a student for a few years. The system has changed." Three of the group have had experience of placement in schools where new teachers were employed, and so have insight into the induction procedure.
Kenny O'Brien says: "I've worked on placement with a first-year probationer as my class teacher. On the one hand, this was very good, because the teacher knew what it was like to be a student. But she was still very much trying to find her feet, so I didn't get the benefit of a wealth of experience. On the other hand, experienced teachers have forgotten what it's like to be a student, and have a routine which they don't want you to disrupt."
In general, Mireille Circus says, probationers are just thrown into class-teaching: "They don't appear to get any guidance about the simple things - setting up a class, placing desks, covering the walls. The initial support just isn't there. They do get a lot of support once they're under way."
The General Teaching Council for Scotland, with which all teachers must be registered, has expended considerable energy on providing materials both for probationers and the senior staff of schools who employ them. And yet none of the four students I interviewed had any inkling of this. Kenny O'Brien says: "When you graduate, you get a couple of pamphlets from the GTC." Lorna Berry adds that in her experience "you can't tell whether a teacher is a probationer or not, unless you hear it in the staffroom. I've never noticed them getting any special treatment."
There is food for thought for the GTC - and the employers - in their observations of life as a student in placement. And for Moray House in their assessment of a course which changed drastically when they entered third year. Kenny O'Brien, who took a year out, found he had come back to a regime radically different from that of his former classmates in their final year. And all four talk as survivors of that too-abrupt change - which produced stress and dropping-out among classmates.
Drop-outs occurred throughout the course. Mireille Circus believes no one should be allowed to start teacher training before the age of 21. Lucy Cramb and Lorna Berry, who did so, believe that life experience is not a matter of age. The drop-out among over-40s on Access courses, all agreed, raised questions about the reasons for admitting these students. "Money", Lucy Cramb says.
Not that long ago, and for a great many years, student teachers - many of them reluctantly aiming for a second-choice career - knew that on qualifying they could pick and choose the jobs they would accept. These students have all made teaching their first-choice career, and know exactly what they are letting themselves in for. The ideal first appointment may be the supportive, well-organised school, but every one of them knows that the reality could be no job at all, or a short-term appointment in an "atrocious" school - and a millstone of debt.
Mireille Circus reckons teacher training reflects the oppressive nature of teaching, and stultifies initiative - and is eager to take up an appointment that would allow her to develop her own style of teaching. "Is that realistic?" she asks the others, probably rhetorically.
All four see the short-term contract - four weeks or one year - as the norm they can look forward to, and one that will not enhance either their performance or commitment. Debt they see as a reality that will curb any sense of adventure.
The market being it is, they will be looking for any job, anywhere - so long as travel or relocation does not bankrupt them.
Next year's crop of first appointees, then, ought to be at least as well-qualified and committed as any that has gone before - financial debts and market forces allowing.