Undaunted by the 'lion's den'

12th January 1996 at 00:00
Competition for places at Scotland's teacher education institutions is severe. Elaine Mitchell talks to four newteachers who switched direction to join the fray.

At 17, Marian Randall didn't particularly like children. She certainly didn't want to spend time with them and had difficulty understanding anyone who did.

Twenty-four years later, an experienced special-needs auxiliary with four children of her own, she looks forward to spending the remainder of her working life instructing the small beings who perplexed her in her teens. Having devoted her early years to her own children, Marian has returned to the classroom and is studying for a post-graduate degree in primary teaching at Edinburgh's Moray House Institute.

Despite notoriously poor pay, a plethora of professional ills, innovations and increasing expectations amid decreasing resources, teaching remains an attractive career choice among graduates. Up to 86 per cent of those who apply for places in Scotland's teacher education institutions (TEIs) each year will be denied a place. Some, despite having the potential to make very good teachers, will re-apply in successive years to no avail.

Last spring more than 450 post-graduates fought to gain one of the 64 places allocated to the PGCE primary course at the Jordanhill Campus of Strathclyde University, for session 199596. Only 30 percent of those applying gained an interview with 14 per cent lucky enough to be awarded a place. To secure that, each candidate had to demonstrate an interest in teaching as a profession by having worked with children of primary school age, have attained an academic background reflecting the balance of primary teaching, display excellent communication skills and possess a lively personality.

In return, Jordanhill - whose international reputation has attracted 26 Canadians, swelling this year's intake to 90 - promises a sequential course, students who meet the designated Scottish Office competences and possess the skills to make able, reflective practitioners.

According to course director Graham White, the failure rate sits at around 10 per cent and increasing numbers, mainly students without parental support, are forced to drop out for financial reasons. This Mr White describes as a regression "to a situation where equal opportunity in education is in danger".

Of those who complete their training, described by one student as a "helter-skelter" of stress and excitement, few go directly into a permanent job. The typical pattern of graduate recruitment is short-term supply teaching, followed by longer-term supply, short-term temporary and then a post.

Jim Gillon, of Stoneburn, West Lothian, is undeterred at the age of 33 by the lack of permanent junior posts. Like the majority of slightly older students, he has made a conscious decision to enter the profession. In 1983, Jim completed an HND in business studies at what is now Napier University. He then got a stressful, demoralising job as a depot manager working for an overnight delivery company. In his own words, it offered "a never-ending series of complaints, bad hours and, other than wages, no job satisfaction".

Interested for some time in teaching, he toured the various college open evenings, spoke to lecturers and staff teachers, and spent time in the classroom to determine whether the career was for him. Within a year, he upgraded his HND to a BA and gained one of Jordanhill's few primary places. He then prepared for the fastest year of his life.

Asked how he felt about being outnumbered 7-1 by his female colleagues, he declared: "I don't find it a disadvantage and don't think it will be. Teachers appreciate having a male presence in the class. Children, particularly boys, need more male role models at school." The only real problem Jim can envisage is deciphering the 5-14 curriculum guidelines.

To this concern, fellow student primary teacher Marian Randall adds the workload in familiarising herself with educational theories, a load compounded by the lack of time 36 weeks allows for the assimilation of both practical and theoretically based skills.

Delighted at gaining a place, despite her honours degree in botany dating from the "dark-ages" of 1977, Marian faced her course with a mixture of "high anxiety", a consciousness of being older than the majority, and confidence in the knowledge that, having brought up four children, she had plenty to offer. This combination could, in fact, prove highly useful in allowing her to do what she loves - getting on the same wavelength as children and helping them out.

While Marian faced her first assignment with "fear and trepidation", miles away from Dundee, Valerie Dillon describes hers as akin to "Daniel entering the Lion's Den". Her fears about failing to measure up to the "maestros in the classroom" were dispelled only in the knowledge that, for the next few weeks, she wouldn't have to face the 230-mile trip to classes at St Andrews College, Bearsden.

Too shy to leave home and move to Edinburgh to train as a teacher in her teens, Valerie stayed put, married and raised a family. Years later, her ambition intact, she enrolled in an access course, but, as she explained: "I realised that I didn't have the characteristics to be a primary teacher. I was more inclined towards academic study, not great on the arts side, not enough of an all rounder."

Deciding instead to aim for secondary school teaching, Valerie studied English, modern studies and politics at Dundee University, finally concentrating at honours level on English literature.

During her time at university, Valerie Dillon toured the open evenings held by the various TEIs, selecting St Andrews for "its positive, supportive atmosphere" and the breadth of future opportunities its religious ethos allowed. "Had it not been Catholic, I would still have pushed for a place there. I was impressed by the atmosphere," she says.

Valerie's ambitions for the course are practical. Through the 5050 mix of college and in-school training advocated by all TEIs, she wants to equip herself with the skills needed to convey her subject to her pupils. "I want to learn how to teach in front of the class as part of the Scottish Educational System, how to transfer my knowledge into manageable units, make sense of curricular guidelines and fit them into the day-to day-job." So far, she believes, St Andrews is "doing a damn good job".

Craigie Campus, the smallest TEI in Scotland, has a three-point strategy of schools-based experience, college coaching on professional standards and subject structures, all of which attracted George McDaid. "Teacher training is very different from any course I have done before," he explains. "On the one hand it is like dealing with the theory of the combustion engine and on the other like working as a mechanic. The trick is to marry theory with practice. "

To his surprise, theories which he had viewed as "hopeful" - like the trick of silencing a disruptive class by staring at them - had worked in practice. But his understanding of disenchanted youth runs deep. George hated school, left at the first opportunity and failed the only 0-grade he bothered to sit. Other than attending various job creation schemes he played in bands, read books and signed on until he was 21.

Lured by the prospects offered by computing, he enrolled for a course but, on completion, decided it was not for him. Back on the dole, George decided to aim for teaching and devoted his time to gaining the necessary highers at night school.

He then moved to Stirling University, where he sailed through his first-year English, history and philosophy exams. That summer, the band he was playing with secured a record deal and he spent the next three years playing bass with The Trashcan Sinatras. He finally graduated, with honours in English and Scottish literature, from Aberdeen University this summer.

Initially daunted by his novice school placement, he overcame his nerves within a fortnight and believed he was "doing great". Further in to the five weeks he began to identify failings. These he sums up by quoting Socrates: "The only difference between a wise man and a foolish man is that a wise man knows the extent of his ignorance."

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