Ashton-on-Mersey school: Out of the lecture hall and into the classroom

Ashton-on-Mersey school in Greater Manchester is at the forefront of a scheme that sees trainee teachers learning on the job – and giving pupils extra support.

Finding four maths teachers in the same classroom cannot be a common occurrence in today's education climate. After all, maths is a "shortage subject" and many pupils in state secondary schools have to do without a specialist in the subject to take their lessons. They would give their eye-teeth for just one for a class, let alone four.

But that is an everyday happening at Ashton-on-Mersey school in Sale, Greater Manchester, one of the first 100 schools to be given the go-ahead by the Government to be a teaching school as part of its plan to shift teacher training from the universities to the classroom.

The 1,500-pupil school has been in the training business for several years but, following its new-found status, has taken on nine trainee maths teachers enrolled at Manchester Metropolitan University. For their training this term, they spend four days a week at the school and Fridays at the university. A lecturer from the university, Aidan Harrington, is based two days a week at the school to monitor their performance and give them guidance. It is, according to headteacher Vicky Beer, a win-win situation. The teachers are divided into groups of three, each taking lead responsibility for one class. A mentor (the classroom teacher) is on hand, too. It amounts to a pupil-teacher ratio any private school would envy – 23 pupils, four teachers. You do the maths.

Aidan Harrington is impressed by the way the new project is working. "They're slightly more probing in the things they try out," he says. "I'm seeing that already with this group. The feedback is much more intense. You can see the impact on the kids, too."

The trio of trainees also learn to improve their teaching from one another. "This way of learning you can see people doing things and you think, 'I'll steal that,'" says trainee, Tom Grubert.

Existing staff members also believe their performance has improved by working alongside the trainees. The advantage can also be seen if, say, one of the maths staff is off sick and the school has to arrange cover. "In the past, we have had to put someone who might not be a specialist maths teacher in," says Beer. "You might still have to do that – but you can put one of the maths trainees into the classroom as well."

Maths is not the only area in which Ashton-on-Mersey school is training teachers. It does, in fact, have trainees in every curriculum subject area. They have arrived at the school by a variety of methods – two this year are on the Graduate Recruitment Programme, which means they earn a wage while they are in their training period. It is a way of enticing mature graduates into the profession. Figures from the Training and Development Agency show recruiting mature entrants is now the most popular method of gaining new entrants into the profession.

One who has already been through that programme and now ended up on the staff is Ian Loynd, the school's head of modern foreign languages. He had prior experience in industry after doing a languages degree before settling on teaching as a career. He says: "There are a lot of teachers in my family and – to be honest – I'd always said it was not for me." During his spell in recruitment, though, he found he enjoyed administration and organisation and got on well with people. After feeling the heat from redundancy in the private sector, too, he began to hear the call of teaching.

H e believes, though, that it was the ability to train on the job and earn a wage while he was learning that persuaded him to opt for teaching. "If I'd had to go back to university at 28, I don't think I could have hacked it," he says.

All in all, Ashton-on-Mersey reckons it will have around 115 trainee teachers during the course of the year. 23 will be PGCE trainees like the maths staff, with two from the Graduate Teacher Programme. Others will be on Bachelor of Education degree courses.

Ashton-on-Mersey is a specialist sports college. It was one way of encouraging parents to enroll their children at the school, motivating their learning through sport. It has developed links with Manchester United, who send some of their teenage professionals to the school for lessons. The football club has agreed a contract with its apprentice professionals that they should do at least 10 hours of learning a week between the ages of 16 and 18. Gary Joplin, the director of sport, has harnessed the school's sporting reputation to enroll four outstanding trainee PE teachers on to the staff through seeing them in action while they were training.

It is easy to see how the Government's programme of switching training to schools could act as spur to recruitment, as the teaching schools get to see the best trainees in action at close quarters.

It is one reason why so many heads are anxious to secure teaching-school status for their schools. Ashton-on-Mersey, though, does not act in isolation. It has formed a federation with a neighbouring secondary school, Broadoak, and as part of their two-part training programme the trainees will move on there later in their course.

It now has 61 per cent of its pupils gaining five A* to C grade passes at GCSE including maths and English, clearing the hurdle of 60 per cent set by the Government as a floor target.

The percentage getting five A* to C's including all subjects now stands at 91 per cent, a far cry from the 42 per cent it recorded a decade ago.

The results have given it the status of a school that has achieved outstanding performance, an achievement which led to it opening a sixth-form for the first time three years ago. It now has 172 pupils.

The shake-up of teacher training has ushered in a revolution in teachers' attitudes towards the job. Gone are the days when the teacher shut the door of his or her classroom and no-one knew what went on behind it.

You won't hear an outcry from teachers at the school about the number of times visitors come into the classroom to observe their performance. Indeed, this week the school was receiving two visits from schools anxious to learn from its pioneering approach – one from Wales and one from Russia. One of the innovations it has introduced has been to instigate a series of "learning walks", where staff and trainees visit other classrooms to look at good practice and see if there are any tips they can pick up for their own lesson planning.

"The approach is the model of the teaching hospital applied to schools," says Beer. "When I started teaching you closed the door and that was it. What we have operating here shows that you do not have to leave the classroom and go on a course in order to gain professional development."

Ways of developing training at the school even further are now being considered. The school has just had a recruitment day when it helped introduce 15 potential applicants to the profession, assessing and interviewing them to see if they would be suitable for teaching.

One scheme that could be open to them is the Return to Teaching scheme, designed to attract those who may not have finished their degree courses but have now had a change of heart and may want to enter teaching.

It also developing plans to join another scheme whereby five teaching schools in the region band together to promote outstanding teachers. The five will look at what areas of expertise they have and – if they have an outstanding teacher in one subject – others will be sent to that school to learn from him or her. A similar scheme aimed at promoting good behaviour management is also under way through a partnership between a variety of different types of schools, including a special school and a pupil referral unit.

Soon the benefits of the new approach may be apparent for all to see. Manchester Metropolitan University has around 80 maths trainees enrolled this year, 40 of whom are trying the teaching school approach and 40 of whom will have a traditional university-based approach to their course.

The education world will be waiting with baited breath to study the conclusions of research like this.

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