Anne Keleny: Why won't they let me train to be a teacher?

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The Independent Online

The agency's spokesman said it welcomed more older, professionally experienced candidates, and that there were still places on PGCE courses for September 2005. Aged 49, I am just such a mother hoping to return to work - ex-journalist, graduate of King's College, Cambridge, with French, German and some Russian and Hungarian - and I have, in the past three months, been rejected three times. I have discovered how shrunken is my subject in secondary schools, and how hostile the climate for learning it properly. I thought, when I answered an advertisement in The Independent's education section on 2 June, that I could do no better than teach. Modern languages is a shortage area, attracting a £6,000 training bursary and £4,000 after the induction year. It was honourable, it might satisfy, it was my duty.

I thought that years of managing two sons, now 12 and 14, and their friends, and the copious time I have spent in schools, would count for something. My younger son's comment: "Mum, they'll see your moustache," seemed trifling.

So I applied to South London Teacher Training, based at Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham College in New Cross, south London. It sounded more interesting than the Open University course I had inquired about. It would also be geographically compact, involving local schools, not trips to Milton Keynes, and so would fit in with family.

Distinguished people helped me to complete an exigent application process. They included the current head of my old school, and a fellow of my college. I spent a day observing classes in my subject, and obtained professional and academic references. I supposed, when South London Teacher Training invited me to interview 20 minutes after I had faxed my application, that they were begging me to join. How little I understood. I have no doubt I will get on a PGCE course if I persevere. South London Teacher Training invited me to apply again, and would help me observe in schools. But the reason they turned me down this time, and the reason for those dropping numbers in GCSE languages, make me weep for my subject. South London Teacher Training said that I didn't have enough classroom experience.

Pardon? I thought that was what a training course was for. I realised, only after interviews elsewhere, what a huge issue classroom discipline is. I had assumed that, for teachers of languages, subject knowledge was the most important thing. I enthused about French civilisation, and questions of grammar, until an interviewer at the other south London schools-based PGCE scheme I applied for, Bromley Schools Collegiate, explained.

It was no use talking about history and literature. A big problem, in south London especially, was that children were resistant to learning languages. A teacher must relate the subject to things familiar in pupils' daily lives, or get hostility. "Football," she said.

After that, seeking classroom experience, I applied to be a "cover supervisor" at a comprehensive. "The people covering when a teacher is absent get the most difficult classes, and if the pupils don't know you, they'll play up. We have some children here who can hardly read. We've had one teacher who's been off all term because of the stress," the deputy head said. "Anyway, you're so highly qualified, you ought to do a PGCE."

But hearing Jacqui Smith, the schools minister, trying to make this year's GCSE languages disaster sound positive, with talk of "not the only route" and "vocational training," shows me that, should I qualify, I would have precious little chance of teaching a sixth form. I would have Key Stage Three, the only time - ages 11 to 14 - when languages are compulsory. My students would not get far enough to sense reward or to consider trying, say, Arabic or Chinese.

One teacher showed me a textbook, which presents grammar only in part. Yet pupils are expected to learn lists of vocabulary by rote: a frustrating way to study when time is short. Doing languages as vocational training seems dismal compared with studying them for their own sake.

So, if not me, who was accepted? One scheme took a native-speaker with teaching experience. My fellow candidates on the other included a primary teacher from 50 miles away. Administrators said a single mother with six children had succeeded last year.

What shall I do now? My immediate anxiety is telling my old school's head that, so far, I have failed. Doing that, I feel 18 again.