Is the teaching production line out of control?

2nd October 2009 at 01:00
A range of fast-track routes to qualified status is enabling newcomers to enter the profession more quickly than ever before. But unions, academics and students are calling for a slower approach to teacher training. Kerra Maddern reports

Once they studied Plato and had the luxury of years of reflection before starting their career in the classroom. Now teacher training seems to be regarded as an inconvenience, a mere stop-gap of a few weeks before students are rushed into jobs.

If recent initiatives are anything to go by, this appears to be the current government belief about preparation for the chalk-face.

With Teach First, school-based routes and the new six-month course for "high fliers", it has never been easier to qualify quickly in England. But if ministers persist with these approaches and ignore the older B.Ed and PGCE routes, they face a backlash from a growing group of experts who are calling for training to take more, rather than less, time.

Similar calls are being made in Wales from teachers who believe training should last up to five years. Rhydwyn Ifan, a supply teacher based in Llanelli, said: "Imagine someone with a first degree in biology completing a one-year postgraduate certificate in medicine and being allowed to work as a doctor. Would we as a society dream of training doctors in this way?"

While teachers' status may have been higher in Britain in the past, never have there been so many people interested in joining the profession, or so many trainees.

But debate about the best way for them to qualify still rages. The content of courses is also due for an overhaul following the Rose report on the primary curriculum.

So what should the next generation of teachers learn? Teaching was not properly regarded as a graduate profession until it gained its own specialist degree, the B.Ed, in the 1970s. Until then, much of the training had been designed as an emergency response to major legislation and historic events, including the introduction of elementary schooling in the late 19th century and the Second World War.

Even the qualification in the 1970s would be unrecognisable to many of today's trainee teachers. The emphasis was on thought and theory, reading philosophers, and managing intellect rather than emotions.

These days, the B.Ed is less popular and most students do PGCE courses. Time is of the essence; academics have just nine months to create teachers. At least four months is spent in schools, but while at university, the trainees learn about classroom management and the National Strategies.

Now this could be a watershed period for training. The abolition of the Strategies and Sir Jim Rose's plan for six areas of learning mean a review of the curriculum for all courses. But according to academics, this is not the only change ahead. Alongside the well-publicised experiments with short and on-the-job courses, a quiet revolution has started: students are choosing to spend more time training.

Science and maths are still shortage subjects and, to fill the gap, catch-up courses of six or nine months have started for students who do not feel confident enough in their subject knowledge. They have become so popular, according to Professor Roger Woods, chair of the Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers, that many people are, in effect, doing PGCEs that last for two years.

For several academics, who have been calling for the length of the postgraduate qualification to be extended, this is highly encouraging news. Teaching union the NUT is also arguing for a doubling of the course's length, with the extra year spent in school. Newly qualified teachers (NQTs) would still get training and contact with experts.

Professor Woods said: "The problem at the moment is that we have to write references for students just after Christmas, when the job market starts, before we've even seen what they can do. It's also a disadvantage for them - they don't have the experience in school to tell people about."

When most trainees had three or four years to train, there was plenty of time to reflect on their teaching practice in school and come up with ways to improve. But Professor Woods says the compressed nature of the PGCE means this is no longer possible.

"The most powerful experience for students is their time in the classroom," he said. "They really need to be able to talk about it. I think the PGCE needs to be a year-and-a-half long, minimum, but the right length is two years."

The choice of courses on offer - either undergraduate or postgraduate - has made running a two-year-long course almost impossible. Some universities tried to get around this by making the B.Ed this length, and there are a few two-year PGCEs.

Among those calling for reflection to be added back into teacher training is Dennis Hayes, professor of education at Derby University and honorary secretary of the Standing Committee for the Education and Training of Teachers.

Professor Hayes believes training is increasingly teaching students how to develop emotional rather than intellectual skills in their pupils. The loss of modules on the history of the profession, child development and great thinkers - found in the theoretical courses of the past - will mean education studies is an area at risk of dying out, he says.

"Teachers used to study the theory and it made them better at the job, now you have a whole generation unaware of the development of the subject and its great thinkers," he said.

"Students now aren't interested in the theory. Everything is more practical, and everything is focused on the classroom. The emphasis currently is on the individual needs of the child. I don't think anyone reads Plato any more. But interestingly, education studies as a degree is now separate from teacher training and rapidly growing in popularity. So the appetite for in-depth work is still there."

Today's trainees would argue they have no time for analysis. Thrown into schools for the first time just before Christmas, they are then expected to plan lessons and write essays while teaching.

Rohan Ranasinghe worked in the financial world until his concerns about the ethics of the job grew too great and he opted for a career change. Last year, he trained at London's Institute of Education and now works at Chestnut Grove School, a secondary in south London.

Mr Ranasinghe said he could not have got through the training without the support of his university tutors, but only felt he was truly preparing to become a teacher when his school placements began.

"I think most of my skills were picked up in the classroom - teaching is not something you can really demonstrate in a university," he said.

This relationship between school and academic environment is something neither side has fully come to terms with, according to teacher recruitment expert Professor John Howson. All recent Ofsted reviews of training point to a lack of communication between the two, and the need for more primaries and secondaries to be involved in the development of new teachers.

"You now have the bizarre situation where people pay themselves to train for a government job without guarantee of employment - it's like the worst old apprenticeships in law, where only certain people could afford to take the risk," Professor Howson said. "Academics still view PGCEs and B.Eds as higher education, rather than training for a job. There's nobody really taking responsibility for the transfer of students between trainer and employer, and this is of great concern. Schools hire teachers, so they should take much more responsibility for their training."

Concerns remain over whether today's teachers, trained for a shorter period, have the experience to tackle bad behaviour and complex learning disabilities. From this year, the courses will include increased emphasis on special education needs, but this does not take up a long period of the training.

Philip Garner, who runs the Behaviour 4Learning website, a resource for trainees and NQTs, said cramming newcomers with details of the National Strategies would not help them to teach if they did not understand the basics of how children learn.

"We can't view the curriculum as narrow," he said. "Rather than teaching about subjects, we should make sure trainees understand the learning experience - good results by children are obviously best achieved if they are receptive.

"Pupils don't learn in a vacuum. If we are serious about them, teachers need to know about the whole child, not just part of them. School staff should instead now be seen as 'enablers', people who know about learning styles and can help pupils respond to the information."

Mr Garner is calling for more selection from academics. He wants them to ensure all students have the right character and personal qualities to interact with children well - something he thinks can't be taught.

"The recession has increased interest in teaching because it's seen as a safe career, but you still have to have the right selection criteria to make sure trainees are as good as possible," he said.

Despite the experiments and variety on offer, plus the advent of the new MAs for teachers, many involved in teacher training are clearly supportive of a two-year initial training course. But with the lack of funds for expansion, and the political limbo period that now exists while a change of government is expected, such a significant change will have to wait.


1846: System introduced in which pupils are trained to work in the classroom by their teachers. Bright pupils apprenticed to headteachers at age 13 for five years.

1890: Day training colleges for teachers introduced.

1902: Education Act (Balfour Act) gives local education authorities powers to train teachers.

1939-45: Day-release scheme to train teachers expands from 42,000 to 150,000 during the Second World War.

1945: Emergency Training Scheme introduced to increase supply of teachers in the aftermath of war. It ends in 1951.

1972: The James report suggests three stages of teacher training: a two-year Diploma in Higher Education followed by a year of professional studies based in school, leading to the award of the BA (Ed).

1986: Only 40 per cent of the workforce holds relevant qualifications. Vocational framework set up to train teachers in the workplace.

1994: Teacher Training Agency established under the directorship of Anthea Millett "to improve the quality of teaching, to raise the standards of teacher education and training, and to promote teaching as a profession, in order to improve the standards of pupils' achievement and the quality of their learning".

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today