Missing the mark of quality

28th June 1996 at 01:00
Edwin Webb argues that the competencies system is damaging teacher training and the relationship with schools.

Anna Waters, who withdrew from her PGCE training in despair over teaching "competencies" (Talkback, June 14) was a student of mine. She was a good student who would have made a good teacher and I regret her leaving. But she is correct in many of her criticisms of the 27 competencies as required by Circular 992 to achieve qualified teacher status. Nor is she the only casualty.

She is right that the demand for documentation in pursuing the competencies can indeed create "a bureaucratic ordeal" - and not only for the student teacher. But there is a wider context of concerns which attach to this concept of a "competent" teacher, which threatens the future of teacher training.

One concern is to do with the notion of competence as a working concept. Recently, a headteacher telephoned me to ask about a student teacher being considered for a post. I said the student showed every prospect of demonstrating all the required competencies. "Yes, yes," she persisted, "but is she any good?" There are qualities and abilities which effective teaching demands - some of which do not show up through assessments of separate competencies. There are the qualities identified by Anna Waters: "patience, the ability to establish a rapport with pupils, and a positive attitude to teaching." There are others, such as, enthusiasm and the willingness to experiment in one's teaching so that both learning and teaching become an adventure. Given such qualities, should a student teacher "fail" because one or two competencies are as not (yet) up to the mark?

And where is the mark, in any case? In Circular 992 there are no statements of performance indicators or required range. What should one be looking for in order to say that a given competence has been demonstrated? At which level of performance, appropriate to a beginning teacher at a particular stage of training, given the diversity of conditions attaching to this school as opposed to that school? How are such expectations and differences to be allowed for? What will count as evidence?

There is the matter, too, of the range of teaching to which such indicators must be applied. Should we presume that competency must be seen across the whole range of classes in compulsory secondary school teaching? If so, there's a rub, or two.

I know from experience that, in some schools, student teachers of English and mathematics and science are denied teaching access to Year 9 pupils because the pupils are being prepared for their end of Key Stage 3 tests. The same is true of year 11 groups because of their forthcoming GCSE examinations.

The new modes of teacher training put a far greater emphasis, and consequent obligations, on any school participating in student teacher training. The school becomes the exclusive agent for determining the success or failure of the student teachers it hosts; and for providing the documentation to chart a student teacher's progress. It is an onerous responsibility which many schools are reluctant to assume.

Beneath the added responsibility for assessing and recording results and for the administrative chores, there runs a living stream of resentment. Essentially, it is based on the view that: "Our job is to teach the kids, and that's a full-time job. I'm happy to see a student teacher and help where I can, but I can't be his trainer."

While Circular 992 demands that 24 weeks of a PGCEstudent teacher's year be spent on "school-based activities", there is no statutory demand that schools must make themselves available to participate in teacher training. The consequence, already strongly felt, is a lack of schools volunteering - a lack which in some institutions amounts to a serious shortage threatening the continuing existence of the training.

Anna Waters, as a result of her PGCE experience and the hunt for documented competencies, felt that a "more holistic" approach should be taken "with more weight given to professional judgment" in determining the progress and achievements of a student teacher - which I wholeheartedly endorse.

It is a principle I should like to see extended to the whole question of teacher training, especially in the light of the announcement (reported in the TES, June 14) by Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, that she intends to introduce new regulations which will "recast all initial and in-service training".

I hope Mrs Shephard's initiative will not add to the widening gap between the Teacher Training Agency's targets for teacher recruitment by the year 2001 and the numbers of "good" candidates. For the fall-out of casualties from Circular 992 is already considerable. It includes not only Anna Waters and other student teachers but also the relationship between schools and initial teacher training institutions which, in the "old" scheme of things, did indeed share professional concerns and responsibilities for training teachers.

Edwin Webb is senior lecturer in English and subject leader for the secondary English PGCE at Greenwich University.

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