School is the best place to train

22nd October 2004 at 01:00
With the review of initial teacher training due soon, Eddie Poyner argues that binding students to schools for a year would offer benefits to them and their placement schools

Recent correspondence in the TES Scotland letters page on the eternally vexed subject of student teacher placement, coupled with the ongoing debate on improving teacher training, proves that it is time effective action was taken to resolve these critical areas.

As a former principal teacher (of English) who was charged with delivering a worthwhile experience for student teachers while ensuring the pupils did not suffer, I recognise the dilemma. It is indeed time that a permanent solution was found, replacing the present, problematic grace and favour measure.

Schools should be offered clear advantage in taking student teachers, students must feel they are in the best situation to maximise their one year of training and colleges of education should restructure to play a more effective part in real teaching.

In my experience, what student teachers want and need is to be in school for as long as possible. Why not, then, contract them to a school for a year? It would be much easier to timetable for the widest range of experiences - shadowing classes, shadowing key staff, co-operating in class, observing, occasionally up to Christmas teaching a lesson and extended teaching experience after January - and it would allow students to understand how to manage the courses throughout the whole session.

In this way, students would be much more likely to encounter the myriad activities a teacher has to master - marking, lesson preparation, SQA administration, managing pupils' needs, using information technology - by seeing a seasoned professional in action.

What would be in it for the school? The staff would, in return for their training and assistance, have an extra pair of willing hands, an additional resource available to the pupils working for their benefit.

It need not be costly. If time were set aside - say, two (protected) periods a week - for one teacher in the department to be a mentor and monitor, assess and evaluate a student, most suitably experienced teachers would be happy to accept this responsibility, I believe.

By the end of the year, schools would be in a much stronger position to judge the potential of the students and each student would also be much more able to evaluate their own suitability for this demanding job.

The big question is, what would colleges do while their charges were farmed out to schools?

First, they would manage placement contracts and assessment and evaluation administration. Secondly, college staff could spend much more time in schools, working with teachers and students. Thirdly, they could lecture when students return to college, although how valuable lectures would be compared to students' real experience could be a moot point. Fourthly, they could conduct research or, alternatively, many might just return as permanent full-time schoolteachers.

Who would assume responsibility for passing or failing the students? This is a sore point. Colleges are reluctant to fail students, despite at times overwhelming pressure from schools to do so. Consequently, there are some weak teachers in permanent posts still being advised when they ought never to have succeeded initially.

It is vital, therefore, that students understand that the rigour of this contract year would result in a clear decision, taken jointly by the school practitioners and college staff, on their future as teachers. If they are not successful, a solution could be to spend a second year as a student teacher, this time paying their own fees. Feeble teachers must not be allowed into the system. They represent an unmitigated disaster.

There are some pressing benefits in this arrangement. There are many wonderfully supportive and rigorous teachers in schools who would do a great job guiding students through this critical year. Students have always yearned for more practical experience and less idealism. Also, they would feel they belonged to the school and its staff and would be much more readily accepted by the pupils.

Materials and resources would be more accessible. Progressive lessons or units, such as grammar, punctuation or spelling studies or Shakespeare studies, would be better understood.

All in all, the system would have much greater merit.

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