Proving a success in spite of the critics

29th September 1995 at 01:00
Mike Berrill says school-centred initial teacher training has won through despite widespread hostility. . .

The formula is quite simple and time-worn: first you find something that you disagree with in principle because it disturbs your picture of the universe, in this case school-centred initial teacher training (SCITT). Then without knowing too much about how it works in practice, you create a simple caricature - in this case "sitting by Nellie" - and you wait for someone to write a report about it. Select those bits which allow you to attack the caricature - the "spin" being that sitting by Nellie is OK as far as it goes but it doesn't really get you very far. You then put it all together in a politically correct sort of way, add a sprinkling of moral indignation and you have a leading article "Capable of competence" (TES, August l8) Clearly there is a need for some redressing of the balance here. The HMI report was certainly forthright in its criticism of certain aspects of the scheme in its first year and very helpful in setting out development targets for the second year (most of which have now been met).

Variabilities in course management, course coherence and quality assurance were found but as the report makes clear, these difficulties were exacerbated by limited time for preparation and planning.

There were also clear recommendations that attention be paid in the second year to improved training of tutors and subject mentors, to enhancing library provision and to raising the expectations of students' performance.

This said, however, for the most part the report was positive about the achievements of the first year. The quality of student teaching was at least satisfactory in 74 per cent of the lessons seen by HMI and good or very good in 34 per cent of the students' lessons. This compares with the 84 per cent and 42 per cent respectively in established PGCE courses. As the report makes clear in its summary however, most of this discrepancy is accounted for by problems in technology (48 out of 150 students in the first cohort) which nationally "is a notably difficult subject in which standards of teaching and training are less satisfactory than those for other subjects". Furthermore it is an area where teachers were, "facing the added difficulty of adjusting to and implementing, substantial changes to the national curriculum Order for technology".

HMI were generally happy with the quality of the students recruited with "levels of subject knowledge well matched to the needs of the schools" and they found the quality of tutoring and mentoring satisfactory or better in 80 per cent of the sessions.

The sample of students inspected as newly qualified teachers were very appreciative of their training and two-thirds felt that it had been good or very good. This was also the view of the great majority of the headteachers and led to results "similar to the national picture". None of the NQTs was considered ill-suited to teaching. This compares with a proportion of around 10 per cent considered ill-suited in the New Teacher in School survey. If SClTT is able to filter out the 10 per cent of teachers who should never qualify in the first place and who do so much damage to children in schools, it would be a major achievement.

Clearly, as someone who is deeply involved and passionately committed to this initiative, I take a far more positive set of messages from the report . In fact, if just one of the six schemes had been successful it would have demonstrated that SCITT can work. That four of the schemes should have achieved at least satisfactory gradings in one year, is something which should be seen as a significant achievement; all the more remarkable for having been achieved in the face of widespread hostility from the broader educational community and an almost complete lack of co-operation and support from existing providers of initial teacher training.

SCITT is based on the central premise that the only place to train teachers effectively in the highly complex art of teaching, is in schools.

The key professional role of those responsible for training is to progressively make explicit what is implicit in the effective management of learning and in skilled teaching performance. The idea that there should be a division of labour within initial training between those who develop practical teaching skill and those who develop reflective ability is rejected. Where this separation exists it is seen to form the basis of a fundamental incoherence in a trainee's experience which leads almost inevitably to deficit models of teachers and schools or to a rejection of reflective practice altogether.

Ultimately SCITT is not about eschewing theory in favour of practice; it is about creating conceptual tools and forms of descriptive language to develop and reflect upon effective teaching and learning. In short, it is about the timeless problem of unifying theory and practice in pursuit of greater teacher professionalism.

Those of us working in SCITT must however, bear some responsibility for the negative stereotypes. In focusing for two years almost exclusively on setting up the initiative, we have failed to communicate our principles, our goals and our course models. This is something we must now put right. In April there was a meeting of current SCITT providers and out of this, a small steering group was formed.

Already a national conference is planned for November 25 (at City of London School) which will involve a variety of practical workshops and be addressed by a range of guest speakers including David Hargreaves. A SCITT newsletter will be produced in the autumn which will begin the formal process of sharing information. The new Teacher Training Agency has also commissioned a handbook of guidance for SCITT providers which will contain a distillation of the early lessons learned . This will be a start.

Whether SCITT continues to flourish and grow in the future will depend partly on political will but this, in turn, will be influenced by the success with which we build upon the lessons of the first two years. It is for those who share a fundamental commitment to the principles of SCITT to begin to write about and share their experiences and counteract the strong prejudice which exists at all levels in the educational world. This will involve a willingness to reach out into the wider community, to have open days, to invite in the press and, by addressing parents, teachers, industrialists and those in traditional forms of higher education, to spread the message about the undoubted benefits and potential of SCITT.

It is also time to build bridges with existing ITT providers. What we are doing is based on fundamentally sound principles and now the first flush of critical hysteria is over, we may find more friends there than we imagined. We still have many things to learn but we also have valuable experiences to share.

Mike Berrill teaches English and drama at Challney community college and is PGCE course manager of the Chiltern Training Group, the largest of the SCITT schemes. He is also a mentor trainer for Bedfordshire education authority.

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