Too quick to judge?

23rd April 2004 at 01:00
Teacher education institutions should ensure that they put care and thought into choosing their candidates, says Peter Lawrence

We are told there is an impending teacher shortage as the age profile of those currently in service indicates that retirement will soon beckon for many. We are further told that the gender balance in the profession is increasingly distorted as fewer and fewer men see teaching as an attractive career path, most notably in the primary sector.

The Scottish Executive, we are told, recognises the problems ahead and has a strategy in place to ensure that its commitment to education can be delivered. In this context, consider the following account of aspects of the recruitment process in operation this session in two training institutions.

A young male with a first class honours degree in a core school subject and experience of teaching at university level applies to two teacher education institutions in Scotland for admission to the one-year postgraduate primary course. He is successful in being called for interview at both.

Prior to the first interview the candidate receives detailed information from the institution on the criteria for selection, along with explicit information on the structure of the selection process: a round-table discussion, a direct interview and a writing exercise.

Information from the second institution indicates that a five-minute presentation is required with the candidate selecting the topic from a given list, followed by interview questions which may touch on the other listed topics as well as the presentation.

At the first institution, the interview process takes place over a half day and at the individual interview the candidate is questioned by two interviewers, a member of the university staff and a serving headteacher.

That part of the process lasts some 20 minutes. At the second institution the whole business is over and done within 15 minutes. The candidate is seen by a single member of staff who listens to the presentation and proceeds to read questions from a paper, some of which ask about aspects mentioned in the presentation but no acknowledgement of this is made.

Comments to the candidate suggest that the interviewer has little familiarity with the details of his application form.

Within one week of the selection process at the first institution, the candidate receives a letter making an unconditional offer of a place. Two weeks on from the second interview, a letter arrives to inform the candidate that he has been unsuccessful and may care to try again next year. On one level there is nothing to be surprised at in all of this: sometimes interviews have a successful outcome, sometimes they do not. That is a fact of life to which every applicant at any stage in a career has to adjust.

The real concern here is not the outcome but the process. Not for 30 years has the importance of the selection process been as marked as it is today.

Every candidate who completes his or her training year is sure of a year's work and, with the desperate shortage of supply staff, compounded by reductions to class size and contact hours, the prospects of employment for newly qualified staff are much improved. It is in this context that the disparity of approach between these two institutions is an object of national concern.

The practice of the first institution stands up well to scrutiny. Ample time is allowed, the candidate is considered in a range of contexts and there is the active involvement in the interview itself of a serving headteacher.

The contrast with the rival institution is stark. A mere 15 minutes to select for what may be a 30-year career and only one person making that judgment on the basis of criteria that are not at any time made explicit to the candidate. The validity and reliability of selection on such a basis must surely be called into question.

Do other training institutions, I wonder, tend towards the first or second of the two models I have described? Whatever the case, in at least one part of Scotland generations of children to come are fated to be taught by teachers whose pathway into the profession rests on no more than 15 minutes of one lecturer's time and whatever preconceptions and prejudices he or she brings to the selection interview.

Is this really an adequate way to do business in the 21st century?

Peter Lawrence is a retired secondary head.

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