The PGCE is a teaching turn-off

If universities want to keep teacher training, their courses must be more relevant to the real school world, argues Susan Bassnett

November 14, 2013

Source: Miles Coles

I have two secondary school teachers in my extended family, but only one has gone back after this year’s summer break. The other tells me that she would rather clean public lavatories than spend another day teaching.

This was a person who spent her undergraduate years aspiring to teach, who was absolutely delighted when she was accepted on to a postgraduate certificate in education course and whose subject, mathematics, is vital to the core curriculum. So what went so drastically wrong in just two years?

Her problems began with the PGCE. By the end of her first term she was ready to throw in the towel, depressed by the perceived irrelevance of much of the coursework. Why ask a mathematician, unused to essay writing, to compare five jargon-ridden comments by American educational theorists, each of whom appeared to be saying the same thing? (As an aside, I think I understand why six-year-olds are now referred to in the UK as “students” rather than “pupils”: it reflects the way in which PGCE reading lists are skewed towards US theories.)

My other teacher relation, a geographer, also ran into problems early when her PGCE group was told never to correct grammar or spelling because this would lower pupils’ (sorry, students’) self-esteem. Querying this on the grounds that surely the role of a teacher was to prepare children for life beyond school, where spelling might just make a difference in a job application, she was taken aside and asked whether she wanted to have a life. Given the pressure to fill in endless forms and to mark endless cardboard boxes of coursework, she was told, any teacher trying to correct spelling would be condemned to a treadmill of endless labour. No PGCE course prepares teachers for this Herculean task.

Both women looked forward eagerly to classroom practice, but both found the chasm between the theory they had read and the eventual classroom experiences to be as wide as the Pacific Ocean. Was it necessary, they asked, to have so much of the theory crammed in at the start of their courses? Might it not have made more sense to have it integrated throughout the year, so that the gaps between principle and reality could be worked through?

Personally, I wouldn’t want to try to remember some of the stuff they passed on to me to read during their first PGCE months. Nor would I want to repeat some of the truly daft essay titles they were given. But if I were a teacher I would certainly want to know how best to deal with the child who threatens to stab me in the head, the boy who refuses point-blank to be taught by a female teacher or the child who sings and shouts through an entire lesson with her feet up on the desk (but who is not to be removed from the classroom because the verdict of the headteacher is that she is “just having a bad day”).

I find it significant that the teacher who survived, the geographer, was the one who had not gone straight into the PGCE after graduating. She had done an MSc and a year’s supply teaching in tough inner-city schools before deciding that teaching was for her. She already had some sense of the difficulties she would encounter, whereas going into teacher training straight from undergraduate life was much tougher. Also, the mathematician clearly had an unsupportive headteacher, who was struggling to hang on in a failing school, which hardly helped to give her a good insight into the teaching profession.

Most teachers I have spoken to think that what is needed is a root and branch rethink of how we train teachers for today’s world, in which the dreaded Ofsted inspections often mean that a trainee teacher is told to keep quiet about problems encountered in the classroom so as not to “damage the school”. There are clearly major problems with a lack of support for and communication with trainee teachers in some schools, as well as a lack of communication between academic tutors and the schools. Many trainee teachers feel as if they are inhabiting different universes as they move between schools and universities, and that the trainers live in a bubble and could not begin to cope with the sorts of kids they deal with in the schools.

What distresses me is the waste of it all. Of course not everyone is cut out for teaching, and it is as well to realise that early enough to change career, as my mathematician has done. The geographer, on the other hand, is thriving in a tough inner-city all-boys school, but she looks back on her PGCE year as a costly and unhelpful hiatus.

Teacher training has already begun to move out of universities and into schools, and the number of funded PGCE places has started to plummet. Last week, Times Higher Education reported that higher education institutions are to lose 3,800 places in 2014-15. But is this shift the right solution? Older teachers tell me that the theory they studied does eventually acquire relevance, so they would be loath to lose it altogether.

Over the years, I have listened to hours of debate in university meetings about how best to train teachers, but the issues never seem to be resolved. Universities need to make a strong case to retain a role in teacher training – a good place to start would be to canvass the views of recent PGCE graduates to gain a better understanding of the value, or otherwise, of the training they received. Hopefully there are more teachers than lavatory cleaners among them.

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Reader's comments (1)

As a keen advocate of the PGCE as a route into teaching, I agree with the main thrust of Susan Bassnett’s argument, but would like to challenge some of the points that she makes. The universities are under intense pressure from Department of Education at present: they remain accountable for the quality of the programmes, yet their income has been significantly reduced. The programme that I lead (at the Open University) will be closing next year as a result of these financial pressures, and I expect other institutions are looking very closely at whether it is something that they can afford to do. The PGCE is not just a ‘couple of extra assignments’ (as one school-based colleague once suggested to me). It is an approach to learning to teach based on the conscious integration of theory and practice, and it relies on students having time to reflect critically on their experiences in school. You cannot work as a teacher in Scotland, Australia, or New Zealand without a PGCE. Susan Bassnett is right; the universities in England urgently need to make the case for what they do and demonstrate the value of their work. It saddens me to read Susan Bassnett’s comments on the assignments that her family members had been set. This is unnecessary and does not help our cause. Within our the course team we have had many robust discussions about suitable assignments with the result that there is a strong rationale for everything we ask the student teachers to do; they are busy people so we are acutely aware that the assignments need to support their professional learning. For example, we want student teachers to understand learning theories because we believe that it will help them to understand how children learn and become effective mangers of learning. We therefore ask them to analyse a lesson that they have observed and one which they have taught, in terms of the main learning theories. We ask them to demonstrate their understanding of key learning theories by considering how these theories manifest themselves in the classroom. We ask them to use their experience to reflect on the implications of these theories for their own practice. Susan Bassnett is unimpressed by the university tutors (‘and that the trainers live in a bubble and could not begin to cope with the sorts of kids they deal with in the schools’). This is where I would challenge her argument. It is five years since I was in the classroom, but in that time I have had the opportunity to engage with recent research in science education and to visit many students in many different schools. I have certainly not been ‘in a bubble’. I have seen and heard about a huge range of different practices, and I spend a considerable amount of time supporting individual students. I accept that if I went back into school tomorrow, I might not be able to cope like I used to, straightaway. But from the student teachers point of view, that is not the point. School-based colleagues are in a much better position than me to help them deal with day-to-day crises and to provide ‘top tips’. It is my job to help them understand why particular difficulties might be arising and to help them to relate what we know and understand from research to their own situation. Often, student teachers get conflicting advice from different teachers; the university tutor can help them to make sense of that advice and decide on an appropriate course of action. Susan also suggests that schools and universities occupy ‘different universes’. I would suggest that student teachers benefit from time in a different environment, to reflect on and debate the issues that have arisen in school. I accept, however, that the universities have a responsibility to work with new teachers to ensure that this time is used as effectively as possible. I trained to be a teacher in the 1980s and unlike the members of Susan’s extended family it was not an ‘unhelpful hiatus’: it was the best year of my education. A part from my ‘teaching practice’ there were two elements to my course that I particularly enjoyed, and made a lasting impression on me: • We had a set of inspiring lectures from David Hargreaves. He had just published his book ‘The Comprehensive School’ and he provided me with a framework which enabled me to make sense of what I saw and experienced in school. Someone recommended ‘Beachside Comprehensive’ which triggered a career-long interest in mixed-ability teaching and how to differentiate effectively. For twenty years I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of trying and evaluating different approaches. • We spent most of our time in the University in subject groups – in my case that was a larger group of Scientists and a smaller group of Chemists. We had interesting debates and discussions, and had the opportunity to learn about the latest thinking in science pedagogy. There was chance to test out our own theories and interpretations of these ideas on each other. During that time I formed a vision of the sort of science teacher I wanted to become; I spent the next twenty years refining and pursuing that vision. The PGCE did not provide me with all the answers, but it gave me the intellectual tools and the confidence to try and work them out for myself. There is an urgent need for a debate about the principles that should underpin Initial Teacher Education. It may or may not eventually include an academic qualification (although it would be out of line with international trends if it didn’t). I would like to suggest that a high quality ITE programme should • introduce student teachers to the body of professional knowledge that underpins good teaching. In a secondary programme this should include a strong emphasis on subject pedagogy; • provide student teachers with the opportunity to develop their ‘teaching personality’ through substantial experience in at least too different schools; • support student teachers in developing their ability to critically analyse their own practice, and educational research. They should be able to apply these skills to Government initiatives or to the accepted ‘norms’ within a particular school, making sure that they understand the principles behind the desired practices and can adapt them so that they work effectively, for them in their classroom; • provide student teachers with well-trained subject mentors who are able to provide effective day-to-day support, appropriate to the stage of the student teachers’ development. • provide student teachers with the dedicated support of a subject specialist external to the schools in which they are working who will challenge their thinking and support them as they experiment with a range of practices; • take account of what we know from research about how student teachers learn and how they develop. The course should be progressive, with appropriate expectations at each stage. Student teachers should have the opportunity to demonstrate their professional learning through thoughtfully conceived assignments and focused targets for improving their practice; These principles could be played out in a variety of different ways. As Susan Bassnett suggests, traditional PGCE courses have perhaps sometimes not taken sufficient account of the student perspective. But there is a real danger that some of the new programmes will not provide sufficient opportunity for reading and reflection, that they will focus on being a good teacher ‘in our school’ rather than on developing transferable skills, and that subject pedagogy will get insufficient attention. Kris Stutchbury

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