Student placement deserves a reward
As this session's batch of student teachers step nervously into classrooms and staffrooms, the generosity and friendliness with which they will be universally greeted belies the impending crisis facing those responsible for recruiting and training new entrants.
Traditionally teachers have recognised the moral obligation they have to contribute to the development of fledgling teachers, and indeed they are the first to recognise the benefits to their own learning and teaching of regular infusions of fresh ideas from young enthusiasts straight out of university with a missionary zeal, eager to please and in all likelihood brandishing some dazzling new worksheets.
However, it is increasingly difficult for teacher education institutions (TEIs) to allocate students to schools, as the numbers rise to meet government targets.
Placements have worked reasonably well through a combination of goodwill and empathy, based on long-standing and often informal relationships between members of staff in the universities (formerly colleges of education) and in the schools themselves. But for how much longer?
Nowadays, the expectations of politicians, the universities and indeed students themselves are more sophisticated and extensive, as can be seen from the plethora of paperwork. Presentations from senior members of staff, arrangements for shadowing pupils, visits to associated primary schools and a co-ordinated programme of events contributing to professional development are expected as part of the standard package. Add in classroom observation, discussions with class teachers, principal teachers and student regents, along with detailed assessment and feedback, and you begin to realise the extent of the commitment provided by the school.
The hugely controversial job-sizing exercise, along with the disappearance of assistant principal teacher and senior teacher posts, is significant in bringing matters to a head, making it even more difficult to persuade schools to continue to take the kind of numbers they have in the past. This situation will only be exacerbated by the commitment to reducing class sizes in English and maths, and the subsequent increase in the number of trainees.
Some of the responsibility for student teachers in schools often fell to the assistant principal teacher in a larger department, or to a senior teacher. Now that responsibility begins and ends with the principal teacher and the student regent (usually a member of the senior management team), many of whom have seen their posts downgraded.
That the current arrangements for training teachers in schools are no longer appropriate was recognised in the McCrone report, which recommended a review of initial teacher education. Among other things, it proposed that TEI staff be required to return to school periodically to update their experience, and that schools which took students on a regular basis and provided a good quality of support and guidance should be rewarded financially and given "teaching school" status.
It is unfortunate that this last notion, allegedly unpopular both with university staff and senior staff in schools, was dropped from the final teachers' agreement. The alternatives seem less than attractive and the likely outcome is that local authorities, and in turn schools, will be instructed to take students on a pro rata basis. Little or no account will be taken of local circumstances, and schools which currently accept large numbers of students and train them well will be treated in exactly the same way as those that don't.
On the question of funding, the Deloitte and Touche report is lukewarm on the idea of paying schools directly for each placement, on the grounds that it would be difficult to quantify "the value of the contribution of the school teaching staff", an argument which is hard to support, given that the cost of most things in education is relative and subjective.
From the secondary school perspective, there are two major disincentives: the discrepancies between courses, especially where schools are receiving students from several institutions, and the lack of funding. It is quite incredible when student teachers spend a minimum of 18 weeks of their course on school placements that there is no direct funding.
Training students requires a significant commitment of staff time, the most valuable resource of all. The way to encourage departments to accept students (and some are asked far more often than others) is to recognise their contribution directly, through extra funding, through timetabling concessions similar to those allowed for probationary teachers and by recognising their particular expertise, financially and in other ways.
People are no longer motivated by notions of duty; they need to see tangible rewards for their efforts.
Bill Boyd is depute head at Prestwick Academy.