Teacher training is a mess. Everyone suffers

Trainee teachers face a fragmented, messy system, fail to get the mentorship and support they need, and end up desperate to leave

Leaf Arbuthnot

When Sophie Marks was weighing up options for life after Cambridge, a teacher training course at a leading north London state school looked tempting. “It was essentially a grad scheme,” she remembers. “They said there would be training on the job and that it would be like doing a PGCE [an academic qualification for teaching].” The school bent over backwards to attract her. Its pupils were mostly non-white and from poor households. Marks was mixed-race and from a single-parent family. She sensed the school wanted her to be a role model to pupils, who were encouraged to apply to Russell Group universities.

Marks spent two weeks observing classes. Then, in September, she began. It was a baptism of fire. “I had five lessons a day from week one,” she says. “I wanted to teach sociology but I was made to teach geography. I hadn’t learnt it since school. I’d come home at 7pm, work until 1am and wake up at 5am the next day to prepare. I had no idea what I was doing. My lessons were observed but the teacher would just sit at the back of the classroom, scowling. Because the school was understaffed, they didn’t want me to leave, so they kept telling me it was normal to hate it.” Her hair began to fall out and her skin erupted. She became so exhausted she felt like a robot, barely able to have a conversation, let alone inspire pupils. She lasted a year, then her father fell mildly ill. “I used that to jettison my job,” she says, smiling. She has no plans to return to education anytime soon.

Teacher training in Britain is failing. While the need for new teachers is growing, the number joining the system simply is not high enough, despite salary increases. The ratio of pupils to qualified teachers rose from 17.8 in 2011 to 18.9 in 2018. The government forecasts a 15 per cent rise in the secondary school population by 2027. A survey last year found that one in five teachers expects to leave the classroom within two years, while two in five want to quit in the next five. But last year the government failed to reach its recruitment targets for secondary school trainees for the seventh year in a row.

Teacher training in Britain is alarmingly fragmented. Even education experts have trouble keeping tabs of the pathways into teaching (around a dozen in England alone). Many trainees take the traditional one-year postgraduate certificate of education (PGCE), combining study with school placements. Others work towards their qualified teacher status in schools nominally equipped to train them up. Some take the much-touted Teach First route, where graduates do a crash course in pedagogical theory and practice over the summer, before starting at a school in the autumn. In a system that fetishises accountability and trackable outcomes, teacher training is oddly messy and murky. Diversity makes it hard to draw conclusions, says Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor of educational assessment at University College London (UCL). “You can’t draw a coherent
picture.”

In England, most trainees learn at an institution, often the education branch of an established university. “The people who teach the PGCEs aren’t always research-active,” Wiliam says. “It means that novice teachers can be taught discredited learning theories, as those running the course are not up to speed with the latest research.”

The quality of teaching at these institutions varies widely. Hannah Jones took a school-based route into the profession, spending four days a week in a classroom and one day a week at Middlesex University. “Those days were often useless, patronising and badly organised,” she recalls. “Unfortunately, some of those training us hadn’t been in a classroom for years, and it showed. Endless amounts of edu-jargon were used and lecturers frequently ignored the realities of classroom teaching in favour of a sanitised, ‘perfect’ version in which students listened and teachers had infinite time and capacity . . . I received no training whatsoever at university regarding student violence.” The university did not respond to a request for comment.

‘She became so exhausted she felt like a robot, barely able to have a conversation, let alone inspire pupils. She lasted a year, then her father fell mildly ill. “I used that to jettison my job,” she says, smiling. She has no plans to return to education anytime soon’

Some university teachers were excellent; others woeful. “My general training group leader couldn’t answer basic questions and would just do PowerPoint karaoke. I got the impression she had entirely forgotten how to teach, let alone how to teach teaching.” In a feedback meeting at the university, Jones raised her concerns but was “shouted down” and told off for “targeting individuals.” Eventually she quit education: while invigilating an exam at a school she calls “Lord of the Flies High,” she received an email offering her a job abroad. It was not in a school, but she accepted: “Easily the best decision I have ever made,” she says. “My mum likes to say that ‘teaching is a safety net’ but I view it more as a spike-filled pit.”

Teacher training in this country has historically zigzagged between a schools- or apprenticeship-based approach, and a college- or university-centric model. Recent decades have seen a triumph of a schools-based approach that sidelines academic theory and study in favour of hands-on experience inside classrooms, with living and breathing (and misbehaving) children. Even trainees on PGCEs spend the lion’s share of their course inside schools.

The upshot is that more hangs on the quality of teacher training and mentorship within schools. While many schools are brilliant at supporting new teachers, others are not. After shining at Oxford and Yale universities, Johnny Swift trained with Teach First, hoping that teaching English would allow him to indulge his love of literature. He admits that he was also drawn to the “elitism” of the scheme, with “its messianic promise” and its mission to eradicate educational inequality. He found the six-week summer course largely futile because, “the skills we were learning had no practical experience to attach themselves to”. Then he got his wish and was thrown in September into a classroom of his own.

He was given a mentor, but she had a nervous breakdown before term started and never returned. Her replacement was “massively overworked and struggled to find time”. Swift had “huge” difficulties managing behaviour but there was no one on hand to back him up or to show him where he was getting it wrong. The situation got so dire he was put on a “support plan” for a couple of months. “Eventually I got my head above water and started to look around,” he says. “I began to see how broken the system was—the target culture, the coursework skulduggery, the consultants cruising around the academy chain, the vanity of the ‘leadership’, the artificial preparation for Ofsted etc.” He realised he had learned “how to cope, not how to teach”, and he quit. Teach First says candidates go through a rigorous selection process to identify their potential to become “excellent and resilient teachers” in places where they can make the greatest difference. Once they start in school, it provides support for two years. Ofsted has rated the training programme as “Outstanding”.

But senior teachers called upon to support trainees are themselves often struggling with endless data to input and forms to fill. They may have not been taught how to mentor effectively. Tales abound of supervising teachers doing marking and administration instead of taking notes on their mentee’s performance. “During my placement my mentor would arrive one minute before the bell and leave one minute after,” says Annabelle Dormer, a new-qualified modern languages teacher. She believes school mentors should be paid extra as an incentive to take their role seriously. Jim Bleeker, a 27-year-old secondary school teacher, says the problem is not indolent or mean-spirited teachers, but structural. Schools are too overstretched to “incubate new teachers effectively”. He quit teaching to retrain as a life coach but hopes to volunteer in schools while he does more lucrative work.

Training teachers in schools is not in itself a bad idea. Doctors learn in hospitals; barristers in chambers. But the current system is too chancy. Anthony O’Hear, head of the department of education at Buckingham University—a rare independent outcrop in the largely state-run British higher education system—says that novices should be sent to outstanding schools first. Many of the young teachers I speak to agree. While harnessing new teachers’ energy and enthusiasm by sending them to educational war zones sounds like a good idea, it often results in burnout.

Seen at a distance, the flaws in teacher training in this country reflect problems embedded in the education system at large. As David Spendlove, director of teaching at Manchester University, notes: “The greatest advertisement for teaching is teachers.” Many in the profession feel undervalued, misunderstood and overworked. Though some aspiring teachers are paid to train, many face steep fees for the privilege of learning to do a job that is often thankless and low-status.

The government has clearly realised that teachers need more support, both at the start of their career and throughout it. An “early career framework” is being rolled out to ensure that initial teacher training does not just flame out after a year. The plans go some way to addressing the problem that a year-long course, let alone a summer deep-dive, is not always enough to mould people into brilliant, resilient teachers .

Improving training for teachers within schools often produces improvement in the school at large. When Nicole Fowles became headteacher at a primary school in Birmingham, she swiftly realised that, “professional learning hadn’t been robust and continuous”. She quadrupled the budget for professional learning and set up a role for a “lead professional linked to learning and development . . . someone that could be on the ground to support teachers and implement structures across the school.” The results soon bore out the wisdom. Attainment at key stage two soared, despite the school serving an area with high levels of deprivation.

Anthony Seldon, a former headmaster who is now Buckingham’s vice-chancellor, stresses teaching should be the “very best” job in the world. “You’re working with young people, you’re doing something intensely worthwhile, you’re teaching a subject you love,” he tells me. And yet “the soul has been ripped out” of our schools, he says. “We have taken a lot of the joy out of education by reducing it to measurable quantifiable targets. Teachers are being turned into exam clerks.” Education, he insists, needs to be about wonder. The wellbeing of teachers needs to be at the heart of the training process. “Schools need to be places of love and teacher training needs to prepare people for that.”

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