When teacher-training institutions may need to behave like a wheedling Mrs Doyle in order to place students within schools, the system is in urgent need of an overhaul, argues James Williams
The school placement officer in a teacher-training institution must feel like Mrs Doyle from Father Ted. When you have too many trainees and not enough schools, I can imagine the phone conversation going something like this: "Ah, hello, this is Mrs Doyle, school placement officer for Craggy Island University. I wonder if you could take a trainee teacher. Ah, go on, you know you want to. Now you will, you will, you will!"
Placing trainees in schools is difficult, especially if schools are too short-staffed to afford the time to look after one. Neither are the financial benefits for the school great: on average pound;300 for a six-week placement, or about pound;900 to take a trainee across the PGCE year (around pound;10 a day).
But if trainees cannot be placed, we are in danger of not supplying enough newly qualified teachers to satisfy demand. Dr Andy Hudson, head of secondary education at the school of education and training at the University of Greenwich, believes that headteachers are the key to solving the problem. "Networking is important," he says. "We hold a partnership conference, and that sometimes generates a few places, but there is never any slack, it's always tight."
The University of Sussex has benefited from long-standing partnerships with local schools, but even so, placing every student before school experience begins can be touch-and-go.
Liz Fletcher, headteacher at Patcham high school, a training school in Brighton and Hove, values the partnership with the Sussex school of education. "We've always regarded the presence of trainees as a great advantage," she says. "It's almost always an enriching experience. Fresh ideas and an objective view are always useful in a school and its curriculum areas. As they become part of the school, trainees can be very effective critical friends, as well as making an energetic contribution."
But we have to be realistic about the pressures on schools. Taking a good trainee is fine, but there is a chance that they will get a weak trainee or someone who needs a lot of support. Institutions produce partnership agreements that help to offset this problem.
The agreements make clear each partner's role and responsibilities, set out arrangements for preparing and supporting all staff involved in training, and specify how resources are allocated between the partners. But in some areas, such as London, the high staff turnover makes mentor-training difficult and the development of the role of mentor almost impossible.
The onus is on the teacher-training providers to ensure that effective training takes place in schools. And, during the frequent Ofsted inspections that take place in initial teacher-training, a key aspect looked at is how these providers make sure their partnership with schools works effectively.
In locations where recruitment can be difficult, taking on a trainee is one method schools can use to attract staff. As early as November and December trainees can be headhunted for posts. There are other benefits for schools, too, in taking on trainees: when structured and supported properly, the process allows for staff development, access to outside professional expertise, the generation of new ideas, and opportunities to take part in free Inset, often provided by the trainees' university or college.
There are many reasons cited for not taking trainees. They include imminent Ofsted inspections, protecting league-table positions and exam results, and the decision to take someone on the graduate teacher programme. Sometimes a school department is willing to take on a trainee, but the move is blocked by senior management. All of this results in increased pressure on trainees, their colleges and the school placement officer.
One teacher-training provider from the north of England, who preferred to remain anonymous, said: "Despite years of effort, we begin 2003-2004 with the usual problem of placements to find in both primary and secondary schools. In my experience this is a common problem for many providers, especially those working in cities. It's a real pressure on training institutionsI Many schools don't seem to see the possibilities offered by accepting trainees."
Recent research shows that the effect of trainees in schools is very positive. One study noted that mentoring trainees gave teachers the opportunity to re-examine their own classroom pedagogy. In addition, the trainees often contributed fresh ideas to the curriculum and promoted discussion between teachers about existing practice and resources.
With career-changers and older graduates raising the trainee age-profile, school placements can become harder. "One problem is that mature candidates with families are less mobile," says Andy Hudson. "There are childcare issues, perhaps, which may limit where we can place them."
Clearly, there is now more pressure on the system than at any other time.
The Teacher Training Agency estimates that each secondary school in England and Wales should accommodate eight trainees to ensure there will be enough teachers in the future. And with the growth in recruitment into initial teacher-training, even more schools are needed to take on trainees.
So what makes a school choose to take one trainee over another? "Allegiance is a factor," believes Dr Hudson. The system is, however, unbalanced: the onus for placing trainees is on teacher-training providers, but they have neither the money nor the legal authority to ensure they are able to carry out this work. They have the responsibility without the power.
Clearly, in most areas successful partnerships exist and placements, although difficult, are achieved. But this is a delicate balance that is in danger of collapse. In some locations, especially within inner cities, schools can virtually demand what they want with a view to recruitment, being able to reject trainees that do not fit their vacancy profile.
An inescapable conclusion is that the funding for initial teacher-training must be increased to reflect the cost of training. It is ludicrous to pay the trainee pound;2,000 more to be on a PGCE than providers are paid to train them.
More also needs to be done to establish the partnership concept of initial teacher-training nationally. Ofsted must recognise fully the extent of schools' role in the training. The work of mentors and professional tutors should be valued highly and should stand them in good stead for promotion.
We must also implement ways of carrying out school-based training that do not always rely on the "one trainee, one mentor, whole-class teaching" model. Paired placements could be used more often. GTP and PGCE trainees could be grouped with a single mentor. Or there could be cross-school mentoring of trainees, using clusters of schools to maximise the economies of scale that hosting larger groups of trainees would bring.
James Williams is the PGCE programme leader at Sussex University. His latest book, 'Professional Leadership in Schools: Effective Middle Management and Subject Leadership', is published by Kogan Page pound;18.99