Gone are the bad old days when keen helpers were treated like poor cousins by the profession, as Neil Munro reports
Suddenly, probationers find themselves flavour of the month. Cynics might say that, with looming shortages and a potential recruitment timebomb, education authorities realise their self-interest lies in cherishing the enthusiasm and energy of young teachers.
But it was not so long ago that the more common experience was of the probationer starting out in an endless succession of supply postings, not only in different schools but (since local government reform) in different authorities - the probationer who spent time in 70 schools over two years being the most oft-quoted example. They were not the only victims : so also was the image of a caring profession.
Aileen Purdon, the professional officer responsible for probation at the General Teaching Council (GTC) for Scotland, says the profile of probation has never been higher. Specific Government funding is available, a new standard for probation is being developed by the GTC, local authorities have now settled down after the upheaval of council reform, almost all authorities have officials whose responsibilities include probation and many schools have designated specific staff to be probationer managers.
Education authorities are certainly beginning to earn plaudits for their treatment of probationers, their minds no doubt concentrated by the pound;1 million from the Scottish Executive's Excellence Fund which has to be spent on training and support for probationers and nothing else. Ms Purdon says that, "while teacher shortages might be good news for probationers, there is also a growing recognition that we cannot just rely on the vagaries of the labour market."
So East Renfrewshire, for example, is using the pound;20,000 a year it is receiving from the Excellence Fund on twilight training sessions with outside speakers, an induction pack, time for probationers to work with "mentor" teachers and access for probationers on temporary contracts to regular in-service provision.
Glasgow has just appointed Scotland's first, albeit temporary at this stage, probation support officer. Anne Brooks, principal teacher of guidance at Eastbank Academy, will work full-time with probationers who form a sizeable 10 per cent of the city's teachers. It is one of the very few authorities which runs a week's induction programme for new appointments before each session.
Aberdeen pays its supply staff to attend probationers' in-service sessions, so they are not forced into the invidious choice between taking a job or training.
Argyll and Bute arranges a weekend course for probationers, which has the twin advantages of meeting the common criticism that there are few opportunities for probationers to get together to mull over their experiences and of avoiding the need to take probationers out of class during the school day.
Smaller authorities with fewer probationers, of course, find it more difficult to make arrangements but there are examples of councils combining to support probationers, such as East and South Ayrshire, Angus and Dundee.
Hamish Johnstone, senior adviser in North Ayrshire, says the local government changes have made it more difficult to track down probationers who can be on supply lists in a number of different authorities. His council has had to circulate schools asking them to bring out their probationers - and even advertised in the local press.
Once they have been found, North Ayrshire focuses on areas where trainees meet the realities - such as coping with difference in the classroom, study skills, effective learning and dealing with parents.
A survey of 352 probationers from 13 authorities carried out by the GTC (as of April 1) found very few who said they had never received any support, although it was often informal. Ms Purdon commented: "Several did, however, comment that despite being grateful for this support, they would have appreciated a more structured approach."
The kind of support varied hugely, the survey revealed. Although most probationers appeared to have a designated staff member to support them, a few said they had not yet received any support from the person. Others reported that, while they did get the support, the person was not officially designated to provide it for the whole school.
Ms Purdon, who will present the full findings at the national seminar for probation managers in June, said a key theme to emerge was the lack, or lack of awareness of, assessment carried out by senior staff. Less than a third felt they always or usually knew when and how they would be assessed, while a significant number felt they did not receive regular or adequate feedback.
"There is an interesting dichotomy in attitudes," Ms Purdon comments. "Probationers want more observation of their work as an assessment tool and to get feedback from it. Yet many managers feel this may not be an appropriate way to treat colleagues."
Jim McNally, the development officer at the GTC who has been jointly funded by the Scottish Executive and the council to establish a new standard for teacher induction, also says probationers are shy about seeking support or confessing weaknesses which may affect their approval as a fully registered teacher.
There are 9,000 teachers provisionally registered with the GTC, although only 2,000 emerge each year from the teacher education institutions and 200 are "exceptionally admitted" from outside Scotland. That means almost four years' worth of teachers still await full registration, although the GTC points out that some have found jobs outside teaching while others have postponed a decision.
However, the GTC has no means of policing those teachers and it relies on reports from headteachers, a system recently criticised by directors of education for its lack of independent checking. "We make it clear to our heads that they must be thorough, careful and professional in assessing probationers," Mr Johnstone said. "The focus must be on the competences required and displayed." North Ayrshire's induction for new heads also addresses the issue of writing reports.
Less than a half per cent of probationers are rejected for full registration each year. Ms Purdon says that "there is sometimes a tendency to bend over backwards to give a probationer the benefit of the doubt, particularly when he or she hasn't had a consistent experience in a particular school."
There is a widespread view that the criteria for probation are not as clear as they should be. The new standard for probationers is intended to address that, including guidance for heads in judging new teachers' performance. But Mr McNally stresses that "at the end of the day, the judgment of headteachers and their senior colleagues cannot be removed. Teaching cannot be reduced to a hundred metre long-jump although we cannot resort to a completely intuitive approach either."
"The standard will indicate what support people need, for example to become proficient classroom managers," Mr McNally said. "It's got to be adapted and customised, however, to the individual teacher with those kids in that class working with those colleagues in that school."
This ought to be backed up by the sharing of problems and issues within schools and across an authority, he added. Although authorities now typically bring probationers together to make them feel less isolated, probationers themselves can take the initiative. In Edinburgh for example, Rosemary Crichton, who has been seconded to work up an induction pack for probationers (as well as for promoted staff going into new schools), says probationers are now setting up their own networks.
The new standard will be loosely based on existing competences for initial teacher education, covering subject knowledge, classroom management, whole school issues and professionalism. Mr McNally says: "The question is : do you make the competences minimal, which most good teachers should go beyond, or completely aspirational? Whatever the standard does, it must allow for continuing professional development.
"It must recognise that it is difficult to be precise about what is a complex job, doing justice to that and not overstretching the competences." But the importance of the partnership between schools, local authorities and teacher education institutions cannot be over-emphasised, Mr McNally added.
WHAT THE PROBATIONERS SAY.
"I would have appreciated more structured support at school."
"No news is good news" (on assessment and feedback).
"Difficulties in securing relevant teaching posts to count for probation."
"Although most staff are helpful, there is no designated person."
"Principal teacher is always full of praise - too nice so far to offer constructive criticism."
"This has been an excellent day to find that I'm not alone out there" (after an in-service day).
"No mention of assessment - when I ask, I am told I'm doing fine."
"Most staff assume that, as a mature graduate, I automatically know how things operate.""Myself and the other probationer have weekly meetings with the support person and she takes the two classes once a week for us."
"I have no idea how I will be assessed."