Running in, please pass

13th January 1995 at 00:00
Ian Menter makes a plea for a better 'after-sales service' for the newly-qualified teacher. In the autumn of 1992 I started regular meetings with a group of primary teachers who had graduated from the BEd (Honours) course at the University of the West of England that summer. The group consisted of 19 ex-students. The meetings, which were held once or twice a term, were each attended by between eight and 12 members. The group was self-selecting and entirely voluntary and unfunded.

At the very first meeting, when we discussed the purposes of the group, and indeed throughout the year, constant themes of the discussions were problems of exhaustion, time management and the balancing of personal and professional commitments.

The items chosen by group members for discussion at the meetings included: dealing with planning, parents, teaching reading and hearing children read, child abuse, classroom management and discipline (including "assertive discipline").

These topics are all important professional concerns and indeed had all been focused on during the initial training course. However, now that the group members were working as teachers rather than as students, the concerns took on a new dimension. There was indeed a need, in the terms used by the Department for Education, for "further professional development". Nevertheless the way in which at least some of these matters were discussed in the group indicated that there was a very strong element of personal development involved as well as professional development. This showed up particularly in discussing parental relations and classroom management but most strongly of all in the discussion about child abuse.

This topic arose during the second and third terms of the year. Some of the group expressed surprise at the level of the problem in their schools. While some of them were in situations where they felt well supported and confident in discussing concerns about particular children with the headteacher, at least three of the group had encountered major difficulties. They had shared their concerns with a senior colleague and found either that "they didn't want to know" or that they were already aware of the particular case but had not informed the ex-student. In one case a group member sought advice from the others about how to pursue her concerns in the absence of support from the head. She felt powerless and marginalised by the head's response, yet she was desperately anxious about the welfare and safety of the child concerned.

In discussing the training for newly qualified teachers that had been offered by the local education authority and schools during their first year, they welcomed the recognition of their status implied by the training. They had found it valuable to meet advisory staff and to meet other NQTs, but the way in which the programme was organised meant there was little opportunity for the activities to be targeted sufficiently to their individual needs.

The sessions took place "with large groups of people you don't know." There was "very little time to chat" - they wanted to be able simply to discuss their experiences. They sought two kinds of reassurance, that of talking to others in similar situations as new teachers and that of talking to experienced teachers who had come through similar experiences successfully.

All those working in full-time posts had been allocated a mentor from among their colleagues. The support received from them was generally appreciated. However, there was a need expressed for an impartial confidant beyond the school walls, (particularly by the group member whose headteacher was also her mentor).

Among the views expressed on the value of the group meetings over the year were the following: This group has kept me sane during the past year through all the highs and lows.

Regular meetings have given us a chance to release tension, feel "safe" in a familiar environment and remember why we wanted to teach in the first place.

These comments indicate the very positive experience for some members of the group who were regular attenders. The group offered a supportive environment ("after all, we've known each other for nearly five years now") in which they could be much more open about their anxieties than they could be in their own schools. Even where they had NQT meetings outside their own schools, they were wary of being open with relative strangers even if they were in the same position as them.

In the light of these teachers' experiences it would seem appropriate that higher education institutions should offer some sort of "after-sales service" to local schools which employ graduates from their institution. Such a service could supplement, complement or replace existing programmes of NQT support. At least two members of the group suggested that visits by HE tutors to their classrooms during their induction year would have helped them. One wrote: "It would have been most supportive to have spent one-a-month afternoons in college and have had occasional visits from a college tutor - in order to discuss matters of concern in school."

Most of the outcomes of this exercise have echoed those of the 1993 Office for Standards in Education report on The New Teacher in School. For example, most of the topics covered in the sessions relate to those which Her Majesty's Inspectors' new teacher sample indicated as major needs: Personal support and encouragement from more experienced colleagues Help in learning about school routines and, in particular, pastoral systems and their own roles in pastoral teams Support in lesson preparation and planning Help with classroom control and discipline.

The matter of child abuse could be seen in part as an aspect of the second of these needs. However, in its particular form it also concerns staff relationships within the school. The key omission from HMI's list is support from equally inexperienced colleagues!

It seems that one way of overcoming the disjunction between initial training and induction is to attach a follow-up service to initial training courses, at least for those graduates who are remaining in the locality. With the increasing tendency for students to be recruited locally, it is probable that a significant proportion could be supported in this way.

Indeed the principle of follow-up being related to initial training might even be judged to be important enough to warrant the expense of ex-students returning from more distant places for a series of sessions during their first year. The commitment of the members of this new teachers' support group indicates that there is a type of support being provided through this activity which is not available through other forms of training.

Little of the writing on the subject of induction sees a role for higher education institutes in induction other than in the preparation of profiles which graduates can use to identify their development needs. While higher education institutes continue to provide initial training and to develop their relationships with schools, follow-up work of this kind should be seen as an essential and fundamental aspect of partnership.

Profiling may be a partial answer to the problem of transition from initial training into the profession. But the accounts and experiences recounted by this group indicate that it is not enough. The disjunction is not simply one of a lack of communication between the arbiters of professional development before and after qualification, serious though that is. It is also a matter of the break in continuity of training and a matter of the changed experience for the person at the centre, the new teacher herself. Current proposals on profiling cannot deal with the affective domain and yet the message from these new teachers is that this domain is crucial.

Ian Menter is director of studies, research and staff development, at the University of the West of England faculty of education.

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