Stand up for your rights

10th January 2003 at 00:00
NQTs should demand the reduced timetables they are entitled to, says David Miliband. In an interview with Karen Thornton the schools minister addresses your concerns

Despite New Labour spin about the "best generation of teachers ever" coming into the profession, David Miliband doesn't mince words when it comes to some of your concerns.

Newly qualified teachers should stand up for their rights if they are not getting the full 10 per cent off timetable which they are entitled to in their induction year.

And in the real world, historians have to accept that scientists and mathematicians are going to get all the recruitment benefits such as pound;4,000 golden hellos and repayment of their student loans - because they are a scarce commodity - on the market as well as in schools.

Miliband, 36, who looks almost young enough to be an NQT himself, insists he wants teachers to be thinkers. And he wants better support and training for all. But he won't intervene on behalf of the third or more of NQTs who feel poorly welcomed into the profession because they are on temporary contracts in their first job.

Mr Miliband was described as a "Year 8 in a suit" when he made his first ministerial address to the National Association of Head Teachers last summer. His promotion from the backbenches to school standards minister came after only a year in Parliament. The former state comprehensive schoolboy and Oxford graduate was previously head of Downing Street's policy unit.

He came to office with a reputation as a bright, empathetic politican. But after seven months opening despatch boxes, does his ambition to get the best possible deal for teachers and pupils still burn as strong? I put to him the concerns of young teachers as voiced on The TES website.

Recruitment

Just before Christmas, the Department for Education and Skills announced a massive expansion of teacher training places, including nearly 4,000 on university-based courses and another 1,350 for the graduate teacher programme.

Training providers say the biggest challenge will be finding enough schools where students can do their teaching practice - but it is not an issue the Teacher Training Agency has raised with the minister.

Miliband says it was important to support schools in offering placements, but also "important that the message goes out from schools that are training the next generation of teachers, that they have been a benefit, not just a burden".

Top-up fees

He bats away concerns about the impact top-up fees might have on recruitment. Additional fees are said to be one option under consideration to help plug a pound;10 billion funding gap in higher education. The Government's proposals are due out this month.

But what about the fears expressed by Ted Wragg, the TES columnist and professor of education at Exeter, that women - with a shorter working life, and science graduates, on expensive laboratory-based courses - could be put off the profession?

Miliband says: "The Government is determined to develop a system for higher education funding that promotes access rather than hinders it. We are going to think through the implications of any funding system for education and other public services."

Training

NQTs are increasingly well trained, and "constitute the best generation of teachers ever". And that's not him saying that, but Ofsted, the inspection agency.

"NQTs are part of an expanding profession which is increasingly well paid, well supported, and well trained, and increasingly populated by people from a wide range of walks of life and ages, and have come into teaching from a wide range of routes," he says.

"That is one of the things that is making teaching a dynamic and engaging profession to be in at the moment. I have a lot of confidence that we are lucky in this country with the people we have coming into teaching. They have a lot to offer."

Pedagogy

Trainees need a broad-based preparation for their career, combining both the theoretical, the applied and the practical, he says. But he rejects concerns about the decline of dissertations on PGCEs and the lack of a strong theoretical element to the graduate teacher programme.

"The fact we have got different routes in means there will be different balances of theoretical and applied study, but they will all have a quality threshold, they all have to be validated by the Teacher Training Agency.

"That gives us the confidence to say that one size won't fit all but we can always insist proper quality is built in," he says.

"We are not looking for, nor are we creating, robots. We are looking for challenging, dynamic people who can lead children's learning."

The undergraduate route

Maintaining a variety of routes means a continued role for the three- or four-year undergraduate course, he insists - despite some students voting with their feet and opting for a degree followed by a PGCE in order to access the pound;6,000 training bursaries.

"There is real value in the variety of routes we've got. You can meet outstanding teachers who have come through BEd, through PGCE and through the GTP route. Different routes are suitable for different teachers.

"There are different pressures on the different routes and they suit different sorts of people coming into teaching. But there's no Government agenda to drive the market one way or another."

Induction

He insists it wouldn't be right for him to mandate that schools give NQTs permanent contracts. More than one third are on temporary deals.

"We're moving to a schooling system where there is going to be more flexibility on the front line. Heads are making judgments about what's in the interests of the pupils in their schools and that's the right way to do it," he says.

But when it comes to getting the 10 per cent off timetable that induction requires, NQTs have to stand up for their rights.

"People have to have a good relationship with their employer. But a good relationship with your employer doesn't mean accepting second best. If you're not getting what you deserve, you should be standing up for yourself. You've got rights, and LEAs are auditing and monitoring. "The best employers don't want meek employees."

Retention

Despite claims that half of trainees have left the profession within three years, he insists that about 80 per cent are still teaching after five years and that, comparatively, retention rates are not too bad.

"We're in a very competitive labour market. I want to do better in terms of holding on to our people, because they are good people. We have got to make the changes to make sure that, as graduate professionals, they are properly supported and valued.

"That is the purpose of our workforce reform. Teachers should expect to have secretarial support, learning mentors in their classrooms working with difficult kids, sports coaches, lab technicians and drama specialists to support them in the classroom and make sure that their skills are used in the most high value-added tasks."

Shortage subjects

History NQTs may feel hard done by because they miss out on pound;4,000 golden hellos and, now, repayment of student loans, but they need to get real.

"The world as we would like it to be would say that the market value of historians and philosophers is the same as computer programmers and maths teachers. But it doesn't," says Miliband.

"Are we ready to take extra measures to tackle the serious problems there have been in the shortage subjects? As a practical person, with the interests of the children at heart, it must be the right thing to do."

QTS skills tests

The minister himself raises the issue. "I had a look at them last week. I was worried about that," he admits. "I didn't do the whole thing. I thought they were serious but they weren't rocket science. The fact that 20,000 people have registered to do them already this year is quite encouraging.

"That some people are having difficulty with them, and are retaking them, shows they are serving a purpose. Having pre-support and post-test support means it's not just a filter, it's a way of enhancing performance."

Discipline

A perennial concern of NQTs. He says he believes the key to good discipline lies in building good relationships and establishing boundaries. The principles can be applied to press conferences as much as classes.

As a pupil, he recalled a supply teacher sitting children alphabetically to break up "all the little gangs", leaving the class "in complete awe of this well-organised way of doing things".

Miliband ends with a warning against expecting ministers to be able to solve all the problems of recruitment, retention and funding.

"Sitting in my position you can begin to think you control the world and you can push these little buttons and different things will happen. But the world is much more complicated than that.

"We've got 30,000-plus people coming into teaching for their own reasons and motivations. We shouldn't over-emphasise the ability we have got to programme the system. We can provide nudges, pushes and incentives, which we do.

"The most important thing as a country is that we fire people with the notion that teaching is the most important profession for the country's future, that there are huge numbers of children out there with potential that can be fulfilled, and that there is nothing more life-enhancing than seeing children make progress."

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