Strain begins to tell

7th May 2004 at 01:00
TES first appointments training survey The workload is the biggest factor in people dropping out, but the majority of students are keener than ever. Phil Revell reports

Jo had had enough. "I quit my course, filled in the forms, enclosed my student card and posted them to my college as I headed for the airport," she says. "I went snowboarding in Switzerland - nothing like mountain air to clear the mind and soothe the nerves."

Jo (not her real name) enjoyed teaching and was fond of the pupils at her south London secondary school. She'd been asked to consider a teaching post next year and there was universal dismay when she threw in the towel.

"Too much stress, and I discovered that I am not very good at asking for help," she says. "It always seemed to me that everyone else was coping better. I used to leave Friday sessions at uni feeling very alone, and very low indeed."

Jo is sleeping and eating properly now, much to the relief of her long-suffering partner. She's happy to have her life back, but she does miss the respect of those children.

Jo is a PGCE student in The TES survey group that we are following through their year-long training: 70 students from 43 different initial teacher training (ITT) providers. Relatively few have dropped out of our sample, but Jo hasn't been the only student to feel the strain of the course.

Jim Roebuck's parents are primary teachers. He, of all people, ought to have known what teacher training would involve. "But I hadn't fully anticipated the workload," says the student at St Martin's College, Lancaster, now on teaching practice in a Cumbrian primary.

"It was a big step up from my degree, where I was probably doing a 30 to 40-hour week," he says. "Now, when I'm in school, it's closer to 60-plus hours. The Teacher Training Agency needs to think about this - the work we have to do is just not realistic. I'm not at all surprised at the drop-out rate."

Some 10 per cent of The TES group believe there is too much to do on their courses, and nearly a third feel under workload pressure, compared with 15 per cent who report no problems. In the middle are the 51 per cent who say the course is hard work, but they are coping.

Some of this variation could be explained by the marked differences in the time students spend on school experience. Bearing in mind that all of our group are on one-year courses and working to the same TTA standards, it seems inconsistent that some have clocked up 100 days of solo teaching in the classroom while others have yet to get off the starting blocks.

"It is hard to develop a relationship (with the pupils) when you have the class teacher undermining you and refusing to leave the room, even when the head requests her to do so," reports one student.

This was no isolated experience in primary schools. In the group as a whole, 22 students out of 70 estimated that they had had five days or fewer of solo classroom teaching. Several had yet to be left on their own in the classroom.

This contrasts with reports of some students on the graduate teacher programme who are, in effect, working to a full timetable. The average for the whole group was nearly 22 days' solo teaching time. Contact time - the percentage of the school day spent in the classroom - also varied widely.

Since Christmas, our average student has spent nearly half of his or her school experience in the classroom, but others in the group had had no school experience since November, yet they are about to move on to their final assessed placement.

"This seems crazy," said one. "I'm close to qualifying and I've hardly taught on my own at all."

We asked the group to rate themselves across a range of indicators, from discipline to marking and time management. This "coping score" has improved since November by nearly 10 points, with highest scores for managing resources and lesson preparation.

Low scores go to working with children with special needs and with classroom assistants, partly because some students had no experience in either area. This is another anomaly because children with special needs and classroom assistants are likely to be a central part of the teaching experience of our group as they move into the profession.

But it would be wrong to represent the group's experience as a bad news story. Only one reported that he was now less likely to become a teacher.

Most were as keen, if not keener, than they had been in September.

"It's been more rewarding than I thought it would be, and at the moment those factors outweigh the workload," says Joe Roebuck.

"They are so eager. If I want them to sit quietly, I'll say 'Well done, Edward. I see you're sitting beautifully', and soon the whole class is working hard to do likewise."

St Martin's tries to ensure that its students see a wide range of primary situations. Mr Roebuck spent some time in a Blackpool primary and his next placement is in Newham, east London.

"I wonder how many others have the same cross-section of experience," he says.

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