Sink or swim

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
Career guidance and support is vital to prevent new teachers from dropping out of the profession. Joe Clancy reports

The quote came from the unlikeliest of sources. The speaker borrowed a pearl of wisdom from the mouth of Paul Burrell. "Never tread water, always swim," she told the assembled teachers from the Medway area in Kent, words she attributed to the former butler to the late Diana, Princess of Wales.

The speaker felt it summed-up best the advice she had for the many earlycareer teachers at the conference who, after completing their NQT year, tend to drift along aimlessly, without focusing on how they want their careers to progress.

A lack of guidance has been identified by the General Teaching Council (GTC) as one of the main reasons why one in three teachers quits the profession early. Another factor is that they feel overworked and abandoned when much of the support they received in their first year is withdrawn.

Too many relatively inexperienced staff are left to their own devices.

Mentoring ceases, and training and career advice is something that many only dream about.

Medway, which includes the towns of Rochester, Chatham and Gillingham, is an area where the ratio of over-50, soon-to-retire staff is higher than the national average. To improve retention rates for those starting teaching, the authority has developed a programme of high-quality training. The scheme operates with primary teachers, although there are plans for it to be extended to secondary staff.

"We got together a group of early-career teachers with heads and deputies to explore with them what their needs are, to assess what we are looking for in an entitlement policy," says Rod Lipscombe, Medway's school improvement officer. Together they developed a Medway CPD framework to help staff. "If a teacher comes into a Medway school they know the sort of things they can expect to get."

The statement that underpins the scheme is taken from the GTC's professional learning framework. It says that staff who collaborate, share ideas and produce best- practice models are more likely to remain in teaching. "Retention is the key issue," says Mr Lipscombe. "We want to encourage a model where more schools actually talk to their early-career teachers about the direction they want to go and how to get more experience and move on."

Eileen James, a former head and consultant for Medway, says it is too easy for teachers to get bogged down in consolidating their classroom practice without looking into the future: "When teachers first come out of university they have a huge financial baggage on their backs. Their first aim is to find a job. They don't always have time to stand back and say what they want to do with their career.

"It is about sharing with them what is available and their aspirations about what they want from their career, and developing a profile that will help them achieve that."

The plan is to match fairly new teachers with staff who have experience in the career path they want to follow, either in their own school or in other schools, and to devise mentoring, observing and shadowing programmes with them.

Jenny Tute, an advanced skills teacher in Medway, says there is more choice available today than when she began 30 years ago. "Teaching isn't a dead end," she says. "There is no need to be stuck in one place. It is important to think of the steps ahead of you and to plan accordingly. I knew I didn't want to be in management. Had AST been around when I was a young teacher I would have gone down that path."

Laura Cruttenden at Ridge Meadow primary in Chatham was a typical early- career teacher before she got involved in the project. After her NQT year, her career appeared to have little focus. "I just plodded on in the class getting bogged down with all the paperwork, and just making sure I was a good classroom teacher," she says. "This project has made me want to be more involved in mentoring NQTs so I can give them the help I received in my first year.

"I don't have any aspirations to be a head yet because I enjoy being in the classroom too much, but I do have ambitions to become a team leader."

She said a survey carried out among 51 early-career teachers in Medway revealed that the three most beneficial training opportunities were considered to be: observing, shadowing and visiting other schools, receiving career advice to access appropriate courses, and receiving non-contact time. But some reported that they had not had such opportunities.

A similar programme has already had a dramatic affect on retention in Essex, where it has been running for two years. Sally Scales, an early-career teacher at Wentworth primary in Maldon, says Essex recruits about 600 NQTs every year. It now manages to hang on to most of them. She explains how an expectation and statement of principles for early year teachers had been developed and that now they remain longer in the profession and in the county.

"All 10 that started in the programme have remained, if not in their own school, within the consortium," she says. "It is often the case that when NQTs becomes fully qualified, they are given more responsibility, such as co-ordinating a subject area, but less time to adjust to it. Some teachers feel they cannot cope without extra help and training. Perhaps they would stay if they were more confident in their ability.

"In my second year I was RE co-ordinator, but I lost the non-contact time and the mentor that I had in my NQT year. There was no discussion about my career pathway. I did feel alone."

That changed in her third year when her school became part of a consortium involved in developing early-career teaching. "For the first time I was involved in discussions about my career pathway," she says. "I hope to become a co-ordinator in one of the core subjects. I then want to think about deputy headship and taking the National Professional Qualification for Headship. I need to make sure that I gain experience in a range of year groups in order to achieve that."

Graham Handscomb, the county's head of best practice, believes there is a "professional development gap" between teachers completing their NQT year and entering middle management. He says that research has shown that there is a direct relationship between the professional development of teachers and the achievement of their pupils. "There is a very clear view that investment in early career teachers is very important to the quality of teaching, the learning of youngsters, and to the future of the profession," he says.

He cites the teaching career of the poet Sylvia Plath enduring the agonies of having swings between tremendous self-confidence and tremendous self-doubt, but never talking to anyone about it because it would be deemed an admission of failure: "Her biographer Anne Stevenson wrote that no one had told her that teaching was difficult, but beginning as a teacher was the most difficult of all."

some Routes the career teacher can choose

* Advanced skills teacher (AST)

* Special needs co-ordinators (Sencos)

* Educational psychologists

* Peripatetic specialists (music, drama, sport and, increasingly, modern foreign languages in primary schools)

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