Impatient to join the 'patient' professionals;Briefing;Research Focus

Out of 318 sixth-form students 105 were considering becoming teachers. Anne Cockburn, Terry Haydn and Ann Oliver found out why

What are the first words which spring to mind when you think of the qualities a teacher needs? Inspirational? Dedicated? Flexible? Brilliant?

We asked 318 upper-sixth students in Norfolk to list up to six qualities that teachers should have. "Patience" was the most popular suggestion - being cited by 80 per cent of girls and 63 per cent of boys. Intelligence or cleverness was considered far less important with 27 per cent of girls mentioning one or the other and 36 per cent of boys.

The need to be imaginative, creative or inspirational was listed by slightly more than 1 in 6 girls but by only 1 in 50 boys.

Given such impressions it is little wonder that applications for initial teacher-training courses are so low - patience is hardly a cool attribute in the eyes of most 17 and 18-year-olds.

However, many of the sixth-formers harboured very positive images of their primary education with 53 per cent of them describing their schools as "friendly" and 43 per cent considering them to have been "fun". "Small" was another word which cropped up frequently with nearly 2 in 5 mentioning it.

In contrast, secondary schools were generally viewed less positively, with fewer than 3 in 10 describing them as "friendly" and only 1 in 16 considering them to be "enjoyable". More commonly-used descriptors were "hard" (22 per cent) and "big" (21 per cent).

Closer scrutiny of the data revealed that students who were contemplating teaching as a career had a slightly rosier picture of their primary schools than other sixth-formers, but there was little difference in their impressions of secondary schools.

What is perhaps more surprising is that 105 of the 318 students were considering teaching as a career. This raises the question of what happens between the sixth form and the final year of an undergraduate degree for, as the Government is only too aware, people are not exactly clamouring to enter the teaching.

Just over half the students (53 per cent) did not know whether it might be fun to teach although almost half of those contemplating the profession thought that it probably would be.

Three-quarters of pupils agreed that teaching was not an "easy" job - potential teachers and those with no intention of joining the profession generally agreed on this.

More than three in 10 were unsure whether teaching was well paid, but 55 per cent of those planning to become teachers were sure that it wasn't. Nevertheless, 91 per cent indicated that high potential earnings would be an important factor in their career choice. One in four said they were "crucial".

Those contemplating teaching were under no illusion as to the status of the profession with almost two in five disagreeing with the statement:

"Teachers have high status." Clearly we are still a long way from the Teacher Training Agency's aspiration that teaching should be seen as one of the top three professions.

On a more positive note, 78 per cent of the students felt that teachers deserve their holidays.

So what do these statistics add up to? Encouragingly, out of 318 sixth-formers, 46 were considering becoming primary teachers, 49 secondary teachers and a further 10 were "exploring the possibility" of becoming teachers.

These students did not appear to have any illusions about teaching. Even so, they may one day realise how right they were to suggest that patience is the most important virtue in the classroom.

The authors are lecturers in the School of Education, University of East Anglia

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