The placement lottery

16th February 2007 at 00:00
The number of schools willing to take on trainee teachers is rapidly diminishing, and desperate times call for desperate measures, finds Nick Morrison

This is a tale of bribery, arm-twisting and calling in favours. But it is not a scene from The Godfather, it's the biannual ritual of finding classroom placements for student teachers - a scramble that is increasingly causing anxiety, sleepless nights and bitten fingernails for both trainees and tutors.

For some it goes right down to the wire, others end up travelling miles to their placement, and the desperate are forced to take matters into their own hands.

Laura had a three-hour journey each way for her four-week placement last term. She is a PGCE primary student at Northumbria University in Newcastle, but was placed 50 miles away in rural Northumberland. Unable to drive, she had to rely on a bus provided by the university, which only reached her school after dropping off several other students. Eventually, the university agreed to put her and several other students up in a house nearer the school.

"There are a lot of universities competing for places in the area and it is quite rural so there are not a lot of schools," Laura says. "The PGCE is stressful enough anyway, but when you have this on top it makes it very hard."

Rachelle, a PGCE secondary student at St Martin's in Ambleside, in the Lake District, was offered a school an hour away. Childcare problems meant she ended up trying to find one nearer home, but the reaction she received was unexpected.

"One school just said they didn't want a student. I was a bit taken aback, as all these teachers have been students at one time and they all had to do placements," she says. Eventually, a local school did agree to take her.

James Williams, a lecturer in education at Sussex University in Brighton, admits he has resorted to desperate measures to persuade schools to take a trainee: negotiating discounts on textbooks for schools; offering free professional development sessions; and free middle manager training, one of his areas of expertise. "I feel like a bit of a prostitute, but you do what it takes to get a trainee in," he says. "We spend an inordinate amount of time trying to find places and pulling in favours, and some years it is an exceptionally tight squeeze. It is one of the biggest headaches we face."

He says some schools fear a student teacher will have a detrimental effect on their pupils, while others may have taken on a newly qualified teacher and be reluctant to have a student as well.

Some responses James has received have surprised him. "One school I approached said we don't pay enough, and another head said to me, 'It's your job to train them, it's my job to employ them'."

Simon Asquith, partnership manager for initial teacher training at St Martin's, says he has seen a reduction in the number of places schools are prepared to offer student teachers in recent years. St Martin's, which has campuses in Lancaster, Carlisle, Ambleside and east London, is one of the largest providers of initial teacher training in England, with around 2,800 students.

"Very few schools are dropping out, but whereas last year they might have offered 10 places, this year it might only be seven," says Simon, who is also chairman of the Association for Partnership in Teacher Education, the umbrella body for teacher training providers and partner schools.

He says the increased pressure on schools, which includes ensuring they are ready for an Ofsted inspection at any time, means senior managers are reluctant to add to their already onerous burden by taking on students.

St Martin's pays secondary schools pound;50 a week and primaries between pound;30 and pound;55 to take a student teacher and cover monitoring and assessment work. On top of this, Simon has offered book vouchers to schools replying early with placement offers, as well as offering them professional development courses.

Although the catchment area for St Martin's extends from Manchester to the Scottish border, some students end up having to go to Scotland, Northern Ireland or the Isle of Man. "It's a real challenge finding placements for some of our students," says Simon.

It took weeks of persistence for Sarah, a PGCE secondary student at Brunel University in Middlesex, to arrange her placement this term. "I emailed every secondary school in Hemel Hempstead and I didn't get one response. I tried to get hold of all the heads of English and none of them rang me back," she says.

"I had to keep pushing and pushing and in the end, a school that knew me was prepared to give me a place. You have to explore every avenue, but it is stressful and depressing." But she can understand why they might not be too keen: "You can't blame the schools. There's a glut of students and why should they take a student when all that paperwork is involved?"

Allan Foulds, at Droitwich Spa High School in Worcestershire, says he can see why some schools are nervous about taking on student teachers. But, as the head of a 1,400-pupil school that takes roughly 40 students a year, he says the advantages they bring far outweigh the risks.

"With the increasing accountability of schools and headteachers, the cost of mistakes can be very high," he says. "Some schools may feel they don't have the capacity or they may not be used to taking many trainees.

"But the freshness of the trainees, their enthusiasm and commitment, brings something extra to the children. We have to be brave as a profession and if we're serious about nurturing young talent, we have to be big enough to take those risks."

Allan admits the paperwork can be time-consuming and is different for each of the seven higher education institutions that have links with Droitwich Spa. But the fees from the teacher-training colleges help cover the administrative costs.

He believes student teachers can also be a good source of NQTs, a view shared by Mary Bland, deputy head at The Coseley School in Dudley, West Midlands. "It is time consuming and you have to put a lot into the training, but you get a lot out," she says. "We believe in growing our own and if you get a quality member of staff at the end of it, that is very rewarding." But while some schools are as enthusiastic as ever about taking trainees, Joanna Moxham, head of initial teacher training at University College, Northampton, says this has been the worst year for placing students in schools.

She says the hardest years in which to place students are Years 2 and 6, suggesting schools are reluctant to entrust Sats classes to a trainee.

Others may be worried about Ofsted, or believe they have reached their capacity in taking trainees.

"They are little issues, but you only need a small percentage of schools to drop out and it has a knock-on effect," says Joanna. "It is getting increasingly difficult and I'm ending up chewing my nails more than I would like."

James Williams suggests one solution could be for Ofsted to be more explicit in recognising the value of teacher training, by making it impossible for schools to be rated "excellent" without taking on student teachers. "We need a campaign to say that taking trainees is an exceptionally good thing to do," he says.

"The positives for the pupils far outweigh the negatives and it helps the professional development of the mentors observing and advising trainees.

"Teaching hospitals are very highly regarded - what would happen if hospitals said they couldn't take a trainee doctor? We don't have that sort of status for schools and I think we're losing out."

* Some of the names in this article have been changed

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