Scottish headteachers have hit out at the quality of probationer teachers entering the system over the past few years, particularly in the primary sector.
The general secretaries of secondary headteachers’ organisation School Leaders Scotland (SLS) and primary heads’ body AHDS both say their members are concerned about a drop in standards.
According to AHDS general secretary Greg Dempster, the main weaknesses highlighted by primary heads are the teaching of literacy and numeracy, and classroom management.
Research reported in Tes Scotland earlier this year showed that a large minority of new primary teachers could not say they were confident in their ability to teach key areas of the curriculum, such as maths, reading and writing (“Many new primary teachers lack confidence in teaching 3Rs”, 5 January).
However, Ken Muir, chief executive of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, says a decline in standards is not something he recognises. He suggests the issue is that teaching has become a more demanding job, as opposed to new teachers being less well prepared.
NQTs ‘need more support’
Meanwhile, the head of one school of education is calling on headteachers to provide more than anecdotal evidence to back up their claims. Professor Donald Gillies, of the University of the West of Scotland, says competition for places on primary teacher education courses is “the keenest ever”, adding: “I can see no reason why the quality of probationer should have altered in any way.”
Figures obtained by Tes Scotland show that the proportion of probationers failing to become fully fledged teachers via the one-year teacher-induction scheme has remained steady, at about 4 per cent for the past seven years, having dropped from 5 per cent in 2011-12 to 3.8 per cent last year.
In 2016-17, 2,609 probationers embarked on the teacher-induction scheme, of which 57 dropped out, 37 required an extension and six failed (see table, right).
However, SLS general secretary Jim Thewliss says the issue is not that today’s probationers are incapable of reaching the standard for full registration, but that many require more support to do so than in the past.
“It’s not that people are of a level that they will not get through probation, it’s a matter of the level of support they need and the work that schools are having to do with them over the course of the NQT [newly qualified teacher] year. The quality of probationers has been gradually picked up [by school leaders] over the past couple of years,” he says.
Dempster says fewer probationers are ready for the classroom than previously. He explains: “Up until about three years ago, what you were always hearing was that each new crop of probationer teachers was the best yet. Then messages of concern about the quality of some of the probationers coming through started, and that’s certainly developed since then.”
Dempster adds: “That’s not to say that every new teacher coming through is of poor quality, but headteachers are certainly noticing a difference in readiness for the classroom.” Pressure to recruit more teachers on to courses at a time of shortages and the erosion of teacher pay have been put forward by heads as potential reasons for the decline. They also acknowledge that, due to the staffing crisis and budget cuts, schools may be providing less support for new teachers.
Earlier this year, in evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee, education directors said some councils were reporting “concerns about quality in relation to student and probationer teachers”.
The Association of Directors of Education in Scotland highlights the growing number of “retrieval students” on teacher-education courses – students repeating a year because they have not reached the appropriate standard. GTCS figures show that, in 2013-14, 155 students had to repeat a year, but the figure for the current year has climbed to 237 – the highest on record.
According to the GTCS, non-completion can be for a range of reasons, such as ill health, family circumstances or failing to complete the work as required
However, ADES general secretary Michael Wood warns against jumping to conclusions. “If these messages are coming from the system, we need to take an analytical look at that and find out if there is empirical evidence. Is it factual? And then we need to work together to see how we can resolve it” he says.
According to Gillies, last year’s University of the West of Scotland primary undergraduate students had, on average, more than the equivalent of five A passes at Higher. He adds that, this year, for the one-year postgraduate route into primary, only those with a 2:1 or better will be considered. Only about five out of every 100 applicants will be successful.
Gillies says: “I can see no reason why the quality of probationer should have altered in any way. Our courses remain accredited by the GTCS and we continue to apply the Standards for Provisional Registration as fairly, consistently and rigorously as ever.”
Muir believes the perceived decline in probationer quality has come about because the education system is in a state of flux, with the government proposing major reforms to the way schools are run; Curriculum for Excellence has yet to be properly embedded; and teachers are still getting to grips with the new exams.
He says: “There is more pressure on headteachers, mentors of probationers and the students themselves than there has been in the past. But a significant decline in standards is not something the GTCS would recognise.”
The GTCS is in the process of reviewing the minimum entry requirements for teacher-education courses. Muir says the review will be completed by the summer.