A significant minority of schools are failing to offer full support to students undergoing initial teacher training. The school experience is the cornerstone of the training process, but a TES survey reveals that a quarter of the students going into schools for the first time were offered no induction programme to introduce them to the school and its procedures.
Some students had not been allocated a mentor and others had been used to cover for absent staff.
"It was extremely hard to gain any information on the school," said a 24-year-old languages student at a Midlands school. "I had to go off searching for staff handbooks, a list of teaching staff and LSAs (learning support assistants), and general policies within the school. How do schools expect us to enforce policies if they don't tell us what they are?"
These results come from the second phase of a year-long TES survey of initial teacher training. We are following a sample of more than 70 students on a range of training routes. In the first phase we concentrated on the motivation that took students into teacher training. The latest round of interviews and questionnaires has focused on the initial school experience - with some disturbing findings.
One student found her senior management team "particularly unwelcoming". A science PGCE trainee, she was told that she couldn't use the school car park. But the lack of a welcome mat didn't prevent her and her PGCE colleague being used to cover for absent teachers - on her third day.
In another Midlands school, a drama student found that, despite having been offered a placement, the school did not teach drama as a discrete subject in key stage 3. This was by no means a failing school. "While they seem to be clearly focused on the pupils' educational entitlement, they seem to feel quite ready to neglect the trainee's entitlement," the postgraduate reported.
He believes that the school had overloaded itself with trainees. "We are viewed as an additional source of income and manpower which the school can gain in exchange for providing a bare minimum of training."
His welcome to the school was a face-to-face meeting with a head of department who told him that she had not asked for a trainee this year - and presumably didn't want one.
The school mentor is a critical part of the support system for a student, especially on the Graduate Teacher Programme (GTP), where the "student" is effectively an employee of the school. But our survey found mentoring to be patchy. Two students, including one on the GTP, had not been allocated one.
Others found it difficult to make meetings with a teacher who also had a full timetable. In one case the mentor was on long-term sick leave.
"My mentor does not have the skills and ability to give quality feedback that you can learn from," said one student.
Another had to "pester my mentor on numerous occasions to get my first meeting and then I was only allowed five minutes".
It should be emphasised that this has not been the experience of most of The TES sample group. The majority seem to have found schools where staff are bending over backwards to help and support the fledgling teachers. "My mentor has seen her role as pivotal in our training and prepares and delivers a super session every week," says one student in the North-west.
The vast majority rated the support offered by their placement school staff as useful or better; a quarter thought the support was "invaluable".
But even those in "'good" schools have heard from their student peer group about the less than welcoming minority, and it has made some apprehensive about their next placement. "I think that I have been exceptionally lucky with my first placement school," said one.
While another found her school had been "exceptionally friendly". "I am dreading it not being like this at my next placement," she said.
What really stands out from these results is the contrast between the unwelcoming schools and those that have clearly decided to offer the best possible experience to the next generation of teachers.
"The school has a great deal of experience with PGCE students," said one.
"All the staff are hugely supportive and have made us feel like part of the school from day one. They have arranged training seminars with a neighbouring school about issues such as English as an additional language.
We were given a day of induction to go around and meet senior staff, support staff, a guided tour by some of the kids and talked through things such as discipline and reward procedures."
Unsurprisingly, this student's verdict on her school experience is positive. "I'm loving it! I really enjoy the whole atmosphere in the school," she said. Overall, our students are three months into their training so it's time to assess how they are performing. Swimmingly is the answer. More than nine out of 10 of the sample group have an undimmed enthusiasm for the job, with just two people having second thoughts about a career in teaching. Over a quarter of the group are more keen now than they were in September.
Which is not to say that everything in the autumn term was a bed of roses.
There have been problems with teaching practice schools, with transport, with mentors and with colleagues. Sample students not in debt already soon will be, with the exception of those with working partners. Teacher training is all about teaching practice, and 69 per cent of the trainees agree that practical learning in schools is the most important part of the experience. But the survey has thrown up wide variations in the approach to that critical first classroom contact.
Some students arrived at the end of November having had no solo experience at all. Others had been teaching from the first week.
The school-based routes, as expected, have done the most. The GTP and school-based initial teacher training (SCITT) were both set up to meet a perceived need for entry routes that focused on the practical. GTP students in our group have said that they chose this route because it got them into the classroom faster.
Well it certainly does that. One GTP student was expected to teach from day one, and most of the GTPSCITT students in the survey are teaching a heavier timetable than their PGCE equivalents. Some are on 80 per cent, close to a full teaching load.
Quite when these trainees find the time for the academic side of the process of acquiring qualified teacher status is difficult to say. And that's not the only downside.
Nearly all the group have had their problems with classroom discipline, and the vast majority saw wrestling with pupil behaviour as an inevitable part of the training process.
But PGCE students normally go to a new school after the Christmas break, so they can start again, leaving their mistakes behind. This isn't a luxury afforded to GTP students, who are employed by their host school and forced to live with their horror classes until the end of the year.
Another key variable has been the support offered to the group by schools, universities andpeers. As we have already seen, a minority of schools seem to offer very little in the way of support, but equally worrying are the low grades given to the training providers by our sample.
Nearly a quarter of the students found the support offered by their university or college "not particularly useful". By the end of November, half had yet to have a placement visit. In fact, looking at the "support" question (see box, right), it would appear that informal discussion with other students was as valuable as professional guidance - although not as useful as good in-school mentoring.
In Leeds, a group of students (see "more than the nine to five", page 15) set up their own web-based support service. Perhaps schools and universities ought to consider doing the same, building an opportunity for an exchange of experiences into the formal programme. A few do this already, 13 per cent of the sample group had this kind of peer exchange as a formal part of their ITT year.
Good school mentors were manna from heaven to the group, with a number of the sample making a point of praising the invaluable assistance and support provided by a teacher - not, incidentally, always the official mentor. But alongside this praise came an appreciation of the heavy workload that their teacher colleagues faced, and a number of students felt guilty about the time they were taking from their day.
A few students have been placed in schools where the morale is low. One said " Everyone is depressed and miserable, but I'm enthusiastic - I worry I'll end up as disillusioned as them." But this wasn't a typical comment, most staffrooms were either friendly or a little distant.
A number of students commented on how peripheral they seemed to be, one wryly wondered whether the head knew who she was, while another tried to make sure she "didn't get in the way". And another student wondered whether the full-time staff thought it was worth getting to know someone who would be in school for "just a couple of weeks".
But students are a little like the new faces at a 1940 Royal Air Force station during the Battle of Britain, not really acknowledged until they have flown a few sorties.
The TES sample represents an older group, reflecting the higher average age of those going into teaching. These people have had jobs before, they have expectations of what a working environment ought to look like, and, despite the wide publicity given to the parlous state of schools in the UK, they are horrified by the reality.
One student felt very strongly that "teachers should all have desks, computers and phones, and there should be a photocopier in each office".
Ministers would reassure her that such a scenario is exactly their intention for the school of the future. But, like the teachers they are working alongside, The TES group appear to be rather more concerned about the schools of the present.
Want to swap notes with other student teachers? Go to www.tes.co.ukstaffroom