Triumph of experience
The increased emphasis on training teachers in schools has resulted in higher education institutions now having to regard schools as true partners not just as convenient exercise grounds for their students.
This notion of partnership, still only half-formed in some places, has been well established for some years among those East End schools in London which work with the University of East London on the preparation of primary PGCE students.
The present UEL postgraduate course restarted three years ago, having closed in a reduction of teacher training places in the early Eighties. This cutback was followed by a desperate shortage of teachers in East London - and by well-publicised attempts by local education authorities to recruit in Europe.
These authorities, supported by parent groups and by UEL (then a polytechnic) lobbied the Government hard, and UEL was eventually allowed to take on 20 PGCE students in 1991.
At that time, the notion of partnership was still quite new. The advantage of starting a new course from scratch, however, as Georgina Dinneen, teacher education co-ordinator at UEL, explains, was that there was nothing to dismantle. "Other institutions had to change from a traditional model to partnership. We made schools equal partners from the word go. Right from the start our students were in school for 60 per cent of the course, and we made schools joint assessors."
One of the most striking aspects of the university's commitment to involving schools lies in its selection procedure. Training institutions are required these days to involve teachers in selecting students.
They achieve this in different ways; by having heads on interviewing panels, for example. Few, though, can make every applicant spend two days being vetted in one of the partnership schools before any interview at the university - like UEL does.
Difficult to administer though this procedure is, Georgina Dinneen is convinced of its importance. "They have observation and joining-in tasks to do. If the school's assessment is at all iffy, then we just don't proceed. It's time-consuming, but it's realistic."
The university currently has some 50 PGCE students being trained in partnership with about 20 primary schools across five East London boroughs - Newham, Barking and Dagenham, Redbridge, Waltham Forest and Havering. Each student has two major placements in different schools. For each placement he or she will have a nominated mentor, who is usually the class teacher. Schools have the number of students with which they feel comfortable - most will accept one or two, a few will take more.
Keir Hardie Primary, a 350-pupil Newham school in Canning Town, had six UEL students when I visited, each mentored by a class teacher. The school's head, Heather Brooks, is enthusiastic about the partnership. "It's good to have students in school - they're fresh and enthusiastic, and it helps us to keep a good mixture of experience and new ideas."
This sort of thinking is common among heads who make an above-average contribution to teacher training. In Heather Brooks's case there is another, deeper, reason, arising from her very obvious passionate and long-term commitment to the education of East London children.
"The partnership helps to get teachers into the East End, and to show that good things can come out of the East End, for the East End. Only by coming here can the students see that it's very rewarding, and that they can have a happy life here. It's challenging, and the work demands every fibre, but the children give a lot back."
The students, for their part, feel very well looked after: Grace Aregbesola, told me how her class teacher helped her through early difficulties. "At first I thought I couldn't do it. But she's given me such confidence."
Another, Hayley Redmond, was also appreciative of the way that her mentor made the task manageable. "I thought there was just too much to deal with, but the teacher showed me how you master each task and gradually get better."
All six students, in fact, echoed their appreciation of the way the school eased them into the task. The experienced staff clearly place great importance on this early confidence-building, taking their lead from Heather Brooks, who points out that because most UEL students come to the job later in life (half are over 30; most live in the area; over a third are from ethnic minorities) they are potentially vulnerable to feelings of failure. "It's so important to get it right. They've tried other things and found them unsatisfying. Then the first day of teaching practice is when they find out whether teaching is right for them. It's really emotional, and they are very frightened."
This depth of sensitivity to the feelings of the mature beginning teacher is remarkable, and is reflected both in the enthusiasm of Keir Hardie's students, and in the tangibly warm and supportive atmosphere of the staffroom.
The six mentors, for their part, all feel that they gain a great deal from working with students and, in the process, from reflecting on their own practice. Debbie Tompkins, for example, feels that "they give us as much as I hope we give them - if not more".
This positive side of mentoring goes some way to explaining why the mentors continue to give their services for little material reward. Mentors in the East London Partnership not only look after students in the classroom, but share in the marking of all six major written assignments. For all of this, the university pays them Pounds 100 each, but if the feeling at Keir Hardie is typical, there is so far no sign of the battle for a greater share of the funding which is brewing up in many other areas.
About one thing, though, students and teachers were very clear - the school could not do the training job on its own. Time and again, I heard people speak of the importance of going back to the lecture room to reflect on and share the theories which were illuminated by practical experience. As Keir Hardie teacher Sybil Martin puts it: "They need to read - but to read with real children in mind."
The lessons of the East London Primary Partnership are not difficult to perceive. There must be many other densely populated urban areas which could, and perhaps do, benefit from the presence of a teacher training institution well in tune with the community and able to recruit good mature students locally, many of whom will go on to teach in local schools.
It is obvious, too, that if the institution takes great care over its recruitment, particularly by involving its partner schools, then it will reap the reward of running a training partnership which is so much more positive for everyone.
The biggest cause of frustration among teachers who look after students, after all, is having to cope with the ones who lack real commitment to the job. The university's recruitment policy may not weed out every half-hearted candidate, but it certainly goes a long way towards it.
The importance of this achievement was summed up for me by Keir Hardie teacher Angela Clay.
"The calibre is excellent. There's been nobody we've had real bother with, and there have been times when I've been flabbergasted by the quality of a lesson, and sat there in raptures.
"The reason must be good screening. We don't get people who are even borderline."