Education: Teachers who teach teachers: As the first year ends of a controversial school-based training scheme, Fran Abrams meets some graduates

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The Independent Online
Rachel Ashburn already had a place at a teacher training college when a friend showed her a leaflet about a new scheme based not in a college but a school. She immediately pulled out of her course in favour of hands-on experience at the school.

A year later, she has no regrets about her last-minute change of heart: she has completed her course and been offered a job as a design and technology teacher at ADT College, Wandsworth, south London, where she trained.

Ms Ashburn, 29, taught technology in Nigeria under a Voluntary Service Overseas scheme for two years, and had gained plenty of teaching experience. And she did not relish the thought of returning to the life of a student. 'The school's teacher-training course appealed to me because it is much more work-based than other courses,' she says.

'You are in constant contact with the students, and within the first week you decide whether you are going to be a teacher or not. You have school going on all around you, and you are absorbed into the system. I would definitely recommend it.'

John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, announced the new teacher-training scheme with a flourish last year. But when he talked of new freedoms for schools, many suspected a hidden agenda: destruction of the teacher-training institutions that Conservative Central Office considered hotbeds of Sixties liberalism.

The scheme diverted teacher- training funds from higher education to consortia of schools, which recruit and train students themselves. Naturally, strong opposition came from the university departments of education.

In fact, all but one of the nine School-Centred Initial Teacher Training courses launched in September are overseen by a higher education institution (Buller's Wood school in Bromley, Kent, chose an independent scheme).

Each consortium consists of about five schools, one of which is the 'lead', with control of the organisation and funding of the one-year course. The first 200 postgraduate students were trained this year at a cost of pounds 1m. The Department for Education planned to recruit 250 students, but only 219 applied and 14 dropped out. Next year about 217 students are expected to take part.

Most of the groups of schools in the scheme are grant-maintained or are city technology colleges (CTCs), and they display an almost evangelical zeal for the course. ADT college, the city technology college where Ms Ashburn is based, is no exception. It is funded by a security firm, and its entrepreneurial ethos seems to suit the idea of running its own teacher-training scheme. It leads a consortium of four schools, which it hopes to expand in September.

Paul Sardar, the college's academic director for design and technology and manager of the consortium, said the programme had been shaped to the needs of the CTCs. 'There is a culture developing in schools, on the back of the grant-maintained movement, where there is a fair amount of independence. I believe that in a school-based programme you have that same culture.'

He spends about four-fifths of his time running the consortium, and says that other members of staff devote about one day a week. His group of schools took 22 students last September and plans to take another 35 this September. Some changes are being made: students will spend five days at the beginning of the first two terms in a higher education institution, learning skills in their chosen subject; and the course will be a little shorter to fit in with the school year instead of the longer CTC year.

Mr Sardar says that some teething problems need ironing out: 'We never believed other than that we need to draw on the wealth of expertise available in the higher education institutions. We are collaborating with them rather than farming the programme out - it is very much a business arrangement.'

The course gave students extra hands-on experience, day-to-day contact with qualified teachers and total immersion in the culture of the school, Mr Sardar says. Almost all the students found jobs, mostly in the grant-maintained sector.

All the consortia have decided to take part again next year - except the one led by Buller's Wood, which has had to take a year's break after a House of Lords decision that all school-based schemes must work with higher education; the decision has been reversed, but the school says it is too late to find students for the new school year.

Barbara Vanderstock, the headteacher, said the consortium would not follow others' methods of working with higher education. Schoolteachers should carry out their own training, she says. 'We are totally committed to teachers training teachers, and to teachers having a total responsibility for the courses. Other professions train their professionals.'

Some observers doubt that the scheme can work on a wider scale. Government schools inspectors who have been monitoring the scheme are believed to have found wide variations in quality. Their report is expected to be critical.

An educationist with first-hand experience of the schemes supported this view. 'The thing has been put together very quickly,' he says. 'Very little thought has been given to quality control, and even where only a few schools are involved, there must be doubts about the experience the students are getting and the quality of the learning.' Where staff were enthusiastic, the schemes worked well, but such people were likely to gain promotion and move on, leaving student teachers to sink or swim.

Chris Husbands, a senior lecturer in education at the University of East Anglia, says most schools are unlikely to want to take part. 'If you ask the Department for Education, it will say it has hundreds of schools queuing up to take over the responsibility, but I see absolutely no evidence of that. We have problems finding places for the students we already have.'

(Photograph omitted)