Education: In at the deep end with a lifeboat standing by - Oxford's trainees are led, not pushed, into the classroom, says Donald MacLeod

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THE CLASSROOM, everyone now agrees, is the place for the trainee teacher to learn his or her craft, not in some university seminar on educational psychology.

Jill Millard spent this academic year as an 'intern' at Larkmead School in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, learning to teach history in the classroom. She says: 'I really felt I was on the way to being a professional. The time spent in school was most beneficial, with the opportunity to talk to experienced teachers who were willing to help with different strategies and different ideas.'

The trend towards classroom- based training has been taken a step further by the Government's announcement of 'training schools' on the model of teaching hospitals. So why, then, should the people who pioneered Oxford University's highly regarded programme to anchor student teachers firmly in the classroom - and indeed adopted the medical model for their Internship scheme - be warning of possible 'disaster'?

John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, has announced that from this September graduate secondary teachers in England and Wales will be trained by partnerships of schools and colleges or university departments. The schools would play a 'leading role', he said. Students will spend at least two-thirds of their one-year course in schools.

Oxford University's Internship scheme has been based on just such partnerships. Since adapting the Postgraduate Certificate of Education course in 1987, it trains nearly 200 student secondary teachers a year as interns in 20 county comprehensives.

Donald McIntyre, reader in education in the department of educational studies, says: 'From the beginning we have tried to project the message that we consider teaching a difficult and complex job, and we consider the people in the schools as the experts.

'Mr Patten's scheme leaves open the opportunity to do the kind of thing we are doing. However, there are ways of interpreting his scheme that would be disastrous.'

Schools, Mr McIntyre argues, are not designed to promote learning by student teachers. Simply putting the beginner in front of a class and expecting them to learn by experience can be counter-productive. 'Very often the tasks that they have been set on traditional teaching practices have overwhelmed them with their complexity and stressfulness, and have led them to aim simply at coping or surviving rather than at learning to teach.'

To provide security for the interns to test out ideas and methods with confidence, they are assigned a 'mentor' in the school, an experienced subject teacher who gradually introduces them to work in the classroom, perhaps working at first with individuals or small groups, or taking responsibility for part of a lesson.

The mentors, who are the linchpin of the Oxford scheme, discuss their own and the students' lessons afterwards. Mr McIntyre and his colleague, Hazel Hagger, found this the most effective means for students to acquire the craft knowledge of the experienced teacher.

Teachers were reluctant to do this initially because they took their skills for granted and felt post mortems would be labouring the obvious. 'But,' Ms Hagger says, 'they are often surprised and pleased to discover how much pedagogical knowledge they have, and how subtly they use it in their everyday teaching.' Perhaps this boost to job satisfaction accounts for the high level of teacher co-operation in the scheme.

The interns are placed in pairs in schools for the whole year so that they become more like junior members of staff and less liable to the humiliating treatment often meted out by pupils to student teachers. They are further supervised by a general tutor on the school staff and a curriculum tutor from the university.

Collaboration between the university and the schools extends to joint planning of each student's course, so that lectures and seminars directly back up what interns are doing in school. From October to January they spend two days a week in school, sandwiched between study at the department. Theory, to Donald McIntyre, means 'arguments about practice' and is essential for teacher training. He does not believe, like several influential right-wing educationists, that teachers can be trained solely in schools, like apprentices in a workplace.

'We want our students to engage in practice and learn to think about it,' says Mr McIntyre. He expects them to get different views from their mentors in school and their tutors in the university. 'People teaching day to day have different concerns from those who will have been doing research. We have to present an argument on Monday in a way that is of direct relevance to them as practitioners on Tuesday.

'It does depend on a very close working relationship that takes time and some commitment of resources to develop.'

All teacher training institutions claim to have close relationships with schools. Mr McIntyre is sceptical about how deep this goes in most cases. 'How do they guarantee that experience in the classroom connects with the seminar in the university?' he asks. 'They have no concept or mechanism for joint planning. That has not changed very much in most institutions and it certainly is not reflected in government thinking. The Government has not given a lead in understanding the close relationship that is needed.'

(Photograph omitted)