Current educational headlines and social media posts talk of a crisis in teacher recruitment. Who will join a profession that seems to be haemorrhaging qualified educators every term? But what’s the real story? There must be a reason why people don’t feel attracted to our challenging but utterly rewarding profession. So what makes some wonderful candidates apply for a place on a PGCE course and put themselves through one or two years of training to become a teacher? We asked several of the trainee teachers what they thought about teacher recruitment? What was their experience and what would they suggest would make their peers take up the gauntlet and train to become a teacher?
Over the last decade or so the range and variety of training opportunities have changed markedly, from SCITTs to apprenticeships to two year PGCEs to Teach First. The pathway in which a graduate can make the transition to the classroom is varied and offers a range of options depending on finance, time, prior qualifications, and course content. The pros and cons of these options are widely debated and maybe the source of some barriers to more teachers joining our profession, but for reasons of disclosure, the trainee teachers we spoke to are part of the University of Buckingham PGCE programme and (purely by chance) the majority of them had previous professional jobs outside of the educational sphere. Is that a possible clue?
From working in successful businesses, training as athletes or working as public servants, a career change seems to be the theme for those we spoke to. “I knew what I wanted to do after graduating, but realised I hated working at a desk, so looked at unqualified roles within a local independent primary school.” The reasons clearly vary from those looking to totally change career paths, right through to those wishing to develop an existing desire to support children’s development in one way or another. “I worked in HR for many years and took a break to have children. I looked into teaching way back then, but it’s not as flexible as people think, so I worked part time in an admin position within a local school, and now my kids have left university, it is my time. I don’t need to be as flexible.”
Wherever you choose to start teaching, it seems that finding the right school is a start point, and then either asking for the opportunity, or working until an opening arises, seems to be a common pathway into the PGCE. A number of our cohort worked initially as teaching assistants, or in admin roles, or in some cases, non-teaching SLT roles, but all had some experience and knowledge of the practical day-to-day running of a school. Some trainee teachers enjoy the return to college or university offered by a full-time PGCE qualification, whereas others prefer the distance learning option or two year pathway that allows for them to truly engage with the practical nature of teaching. “Funding barriers are a really big drag, and being on the course, with the pros and cons of distance learning, allows you to immerse yourself in the school, without visiting uni so regularly. Teachers who do the traditional PGCE don’t do the parents’ evenings etc., and might feel a little removed from the process. That will hit them hard in their NQT year and it’s an important part of the job.”
So what is the PGCE course really like? Why would so many talented adults choose to swap professional pathways to start the beginning of a new one? “In all honesty, there wasn’t enough guidance to select which route to train, the process seems overly complicated and choosing the course was hard. However, the PGCE year has been great and both the school and university are very supportive. Personally, I’d like less emphasis on the essays and theory as they are not as useful as the lesson observations. The 3 observations for the course from Buckingham were much more useful, and on-the-job learning is so much more important.” To engage with teacher training will always demand a balance of the practical teaching experience and the theoretical discussion of what lies behind the ‘magic’, and that becomes a personal preference for differing candidates that responded to us. Nevertheless, the chance to spend more time within their schools (the traditional PGCE only requires two 3 month placements in two different schools) was seen as invaluable to their development. “It’s a lot of work, and not for the faint-hearted, and that is not emphasised enough. It was a huge privilege to have some experience of students already. My daughter is doing a PGCE at university, and we compare notes. She might have greater depth in the pedagogy, but my practical experience outweighs hers.”
The choice between training routes appears to determine the experience of the trainee teacher, and could contribute to the positive nature of their early years in teaching. A slower start and deeper immersion into school cultures might well help teachers build the resilience and skills they need to meet the challenges of full timetables, behaviour management, and ever-changing assessment that seem to deter and expel people from our profession. “Having the extra year was helpful to improve my understanding and generally get used to what to do. I loved my first year of practice. The stuff I learnt as a teaching assistant really helped me. I actually think it should be compulsory to be a TA before becoming a teacher as some people have not been in a classroom since they were a student. My teaching assistant experience allowed me to know things about the classroom and the curriculum – I didn’t go in blind.”
No-one we spoke to said that teaching is easy. No-one said that every school is perfect in supporting or developing staff, the onus is clearly on the individual teacher to take what they can from their training and apply as much of that knowledge in a practical sense – gaining confidence and further experience with each term. “To finance the course, I moved schools from where I was TA, and the second school was very different, bigger, a change of culture. But the learning curve was good. It made me more confident. Being outside of my comfort zone made me better.”
A big barrier to recruitment will be finance. As with every training opportunity or career change, someone somewhere has to pay. But if you can find funding and a training course that allows you or your fees to be paid for through your work, the PGCE is an opportunity to join a profession in a way that offers real intellectual, practical and professional development within a unique setting – a school. So why did these professionals decide to buck the trend and join the teaching profession? “Teaching is a great job and pushes your development further, not just passing on knowledge at the front of the class, but how you can adapt your teaching and understand all the pupils’ needs.” And for those already taking a role in schools as TAs or other vital members of staff, consider what you might gain from training as a teacher “I’m absolutely enjoying it. I was a teaching assistant for 7 years, taking on more and more classes, and I thought, I’m doing it and loving it, why not get qualified in it.”
A final thought, as a profession, do we prefer shiny undergraduates to unqualified adults already working within our schools? Who are we targeting to train as teachers? Do we prefer a university based year of training to a school-based, immersive training experience? Funding and finance are key, but maybe the old adage applies to teacher training, what you put in, you most certainly get out.