Practice makes perfect sense

19th September 2003 at 01:00
David Burghes and Liz Henning describe a new model for teacher training

The current model used by universities for teacher training in the UK has a number of potential problems, including the varying levels of support for students; low levels of peer support; the lack of control that university tutors have over the choice of mentors for training; and the rapid turnover of school staff. In mathematics, we are at crisis point in the supply and retention of high quality graduates, so it is vital we take action to resolve these problems.

The University Practice School (UPS) model, which is used in many European countries, deals with most of these problems by: lUsing school subject mentors who are excellent subject teachers and are given a 50 to 60 per cent timetable in recognition of this responsibility.

lAllowing trainees to work as a group with the subject mentor and the university tutor.

lProviding opportunities to observe and discuss lessons given by the school mentor.

lAllowing each practice lesson to be observed by the other students, the school mentor and, where possible, the university tutor.

This method follows a similar philosophy to the interactive style of whole-class teaching seen on the Continent, involving student teachers, tutors and mentors.

During the past academic year, we have been running a pilot in which we have placed up to four students in chosen mathematics departments, funding them so that staff have time to give the trainees priority. Three of these schools are in south-west England, where Exeter University has designated university practice departments, and one is in the north-west, working with Manchester Metropolitan University.

While it is too early and the experiment too small to be conclusive, we are pleased with this pilot. There have been many opportunities for students to see good teaching and identify the standards they are expected to reach. We have noticed that students quickly become aware of potential problems and soon realise whether or not they are suited to a career in teaching.

Mentors enjoy greater involvement in training and are able to work more closely with university tutors and with other mentors.

University tutors also have more involvement in the training and more awareness of the day-to-day pressures on teachers. There is more effective quality control of teaching practice and a better integration of research and teacher training.

Critical reflective analysis about their own and others' teaching methods has been an essential part of the scheme. The spin-offs for pupils include more helpers in the classroom and consequently fewer discipline problems.

We have encountered some problems: many subject mentors did not have enough time to give comprehensive support to all their trainees, some schools were reluctant to release key teachers from pupil contact and headteachers worried about the impact on pupils when they had student teachers across a number of subjects.

All participants are keen to continue with the trial. With a research grant from the Teacher Training Agency, we plan to add to our original funding from a training provider (the Centre for British Teachers), putting into place a larger pilot scheme next year.

In the long term, it would be more helpful if schools were able to timetable mentors to provide more support. Universities (or the TTA) could provide more direct funding for this. Another possibility would be the use of advanced skills teachers, who should have time for this type of role.

For more about the pilot, go to schools and expert teachers: King Arthur's School, Wincanton (Jill Morris); Kinsbridge School, Devon (Sandra Westlake); Exeter School, Exeter (Guy Wilson); Matthew Moss School, Rochdale (Liz Henning)

David Burghes is director of the Centre for Innovation and Mathematics at Exeter University

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