The practical approach to teacher training

A PGCE allows you to get classroom experience alongside an academic qualification, says Helena Pozniak

Monday 24 October 2011 17:49

No matter how well you’ve trained, it can all still go wrong. Being literally sick from nerves, getting locked in a cupboard, even forgetting a lesson, these are just a few of the calamities that have befallen this year’s fledgling teachers.

Primary school teacher Sarah Stoneley has so far survived her new job unscathed. “I’m finding the job easier to handle than the course,” she says during a break from her class at Hilltop Infant School in Essex. “The pace of the course has really helped me to be organised.”

Stoneley completed a postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE) at Billericay Education Consortium. “Although the course was only a year, it didn’t take any shortcuts. You have to be as on top of the work as possible right from the start.”

Every year, around 10 per cent of students drop out of teacher training, although only 4 per cent of these were on PGCEs. Compared to training on the job, it gives students time to learn the theory and then back it up with practice. “A PGCE offers a broad view of education; students have time to absorb, step back and reflect upon concepts, which is incredibly important,” says Kate Green, the secondary PGCE programme director at the University of Southampton.

Some subjects are incredibly popular: physical education, English and history for instance, and primary PGCEs, always attract plenty of applicants. However, mathematics, physics and languages courses continually struggle to recruit good applicants, prompting the government to offer bursaries of up to £9,000 to the right candidates during the past academic year. Places for sciences and languages have increased for the next academic year, but subjects such as business studies, art and music have lost out.

Currently, a PGCE costs around £3,000, but this is expected to rise next year when institutions set their own fees. A number of means-tested grants and loans are available. A successful application depends on several factors. Providers look for at least a 2.2 degree, and require GCSE maths and English at C-grade or above, with a science for primary.

“We look for a real commitment to teach, rather than ‘I can’t think what else to do’,” says Alison Kitson, lecturer in history education at the Institute of Education in London.

Trainers like applicants to have tested the waters with at least one day in school as a bare minimum; although many will have much wider experience. “It’s difficult to talk with any knowledge about teaching if you’ve not looked at current schools, curriculum, and government policies,” says Green.

The Graduate Teacher Training Registry recommends applications are made early, especially for popular courses, as they will fill up as soon as the process starts in autumn for the next academic year.

Slightly different skills are sought from secondary and primary candidates, although both courses demand the same academic standards. “Secondary teachers are expected to have specialist knowledge, and will encounter many different classes; primary teachers look after one class across a broad range of subjects,” says Green. “It’s important to be enthusiastic and realistic – not idealistic,” she warns.

A common fear among students is being left alone in charge of a class. This won’t happen until you are ready, assure tutors. “It’s phased in gradually,” says Kitson. “You won’t be abandoned. If you are confident you may get more responsibility – that’s the beauty of a year-long course, it can be tailored to the individual.”

Although students can expect support from their mentors, usually other teachers, the Teacher Support charity reports a rising number of trainees feeling unsupported or overwhelmed by the workload. “There are pressures unique to teaching,” says Julian Stanley, CEO of Teacher Support. “It’s forward facing; presenting to colleagues, parents, governors and pupils, there’s no hiding place.”

The best advice last year’s trainees say they received was this: panic early and stay on top of your work, or time will run away. “You have to sacrifice weekends and evenings,” says Stoneley. “It’s worth it when you come out of it.”

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