Get Carter

Is Andrew Carter set to be cast as the Lord Widgery of early 21st Century whitewashes? Just as the original 1972 Bloody Sunday tribunal was dismissed as an establishment-serving cover-up, so the fear is that the Carter Review into ITT will merely tell the DfE what it already knows. Whereas the analogy may seem fanciful, the two do share at least one design flaw: they are both bound by narrow terms of reference, likely to produce a result pleasing to their masters but useless to the rest of us.

Carter’s Review into ITT is being questioned exactly because it appears to be sticking merely to the initial year in a teacher’s life, eschewing the wider view. Entry qualifications, induction, Masters level study, continuing professional development and progression throughout one’s career: any discussion of fitness to teach or oaths to professionalism ought to embrace the full panoply of PD.

But rather than admonishing Carter for what it is not, let us critique it on its own (narrow)terms. Its remit is to scan the range of ITT courses to:
* define effective ITT practice
* assess the extent to which the current system delivers effective ITT
* recommend where and how improvements could be made
* recommend ways to improve choice in the system by improving the transparency of course content and methods.

This tribunal will both define what effective ITT is, and decide for itself whether the system meets that definition. And if there were any doubt as to the remedies required (for surely the system is ailing) we are told in the final term that it will involve yet more choice and transparency. Whatever else will be prescribed, it will not be a dose of market-narrowing. At my last count there were at least 5 routes into teaching, but even if Carter concludes that this market expansion has muddied the view of course content when seen from the outside, the decree is that there should be more, not less of the obscuring stuff.

Full Disclosure: Mine is a lead school for School Direct. With colleagues at London Metropolitan University, I helped to establish a London-wide alliance of 26 schools to bid for training places, with LMU providing its expertise in recruitment and course tuition. Our first trainees are in schools right now, enjoying the same standard of ITT as that university’s PGCE students. The additional numbers that these SD trainees represent has boosted LMU’s core allocation, thereby helping to keep alive some of the best teacher-training courses in London. It has been hard work, and worth the effort. But none of it was necessary.

It might have been necessary had the universities been churning out sub-standard teachers, and doing so in insufficient numbers. But that has never been established (and will not be by Widgery – sorry, Carter.) Since the government decided to expand choice, I know from my experience of ITT in London that the offer has in fact shrunk. Geography, Art, Technology and PE have all been stripped from Middlesex; London Met has lost English; news is that SWELTEC is gone. I would dearly love to train a Geographer through School Direct, but the IOE is the only provider. Is that choice? I have 15 trainees placed in my school this term, but not one of them in a Technology or expressive Arts subject, because they are all being trained in the south and west of the city. School Direct is not the answer to this, if the ‘provider’ universities are too far away. ‘Choice’ has not expanded choice.

Carter himself might conclude this. I fear he may jump to another conclusion, one of the order: if this is not the solution then we need to change the problem. School Direct, with all of the additional burdens on schools that have not expanded their capacity to cope with it, is a poor vehicle for delivering fully-qualified teachers. So – since School Direct has to be the answer – we will have to redefine what is meant by ‘qualified’. For a generation and more, this has meant acquiring a PGCE. PGCE is an academic qualification which can only be certified by a university. (Others, such as SCITTs, may also but their portability will always be questioned.) But, if by fully-qualified we mean QTS-only, then schools may well be reasonably placed to deliver this, as we do already sign off the Teachers’ Standards at the end of school placements.

Carter, operating within narrow parameters, could define ‘effective ITT practice’ as an apprentice model, where rookie trainees learn the craft by mimicking masters. He could improve choice by stripping away the expectation of a PGCE and allowing schools alone to grant QTS. Universities can go the way of Bristol and Warwick and abandon ITT altogether. If he proceeds down this route, then I wish him luck with transparency, for there will be a different interpretation of fitness to teach for every school making the decision.

It took the establishment 38 years to erase the whitewash of Widgery, years which added to the blight of a generation. Carter cannot be allowed to do the same.

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Why we are in the PGCE game.

Student Teachers: they come and go. Actually, very many come and then never leave, having shown enough promise to be recruited as NQTs. It is one of the main attractions for any school taking on PGCE students: the hope that they might stumble across one or two they want to give a job to.

I am being too cynical. No, the real reason we devote so many of our energies to training is the money. The £400 or so per trainee can go a long way in a cash-strapped school.

No, not that. It must be the mission then: we are into teacher education because we are simply into education. We are excited at the prospect of introducing the next generation of teachers to the current generation of young people. It is a great privilege, blah, blah.

Well, of course it is. But let’s not get too dewy-eyed about it. Learning how to teach is very hard for almost everyone who tries to do it. It’s hard because their university tutor talks to them about ‘learning intentions’, while their placement school has a firm policy on ‘learning objectives’. It is hard because they really want to inspire young people with a love for their subject, but those same young people just refuse to be courted. It is hard because they have to plan the next lesson, reflect on the past one, and upload an assignment for their course. It is hard because, just when they were getting used to the kids in their first school, they are forced to up sticks and start all over again somewhere else. It is hard.

How do they manage? There are few things worth bearing in mind.

  1. Don’t pretend this is anything other than hard. Don’t suggest to your mentor that all is well, when palpably it is not. By the same token, don’t just moan about it: do the thing we all have to do when faced with something hard – work hard at it. It might well take hours to plan a single lesson right now. Well, spend the hours on it if needs be. It won’t always take that long, but if that is what it takes now then you have no option.
  2. Don’t take the easy way out. There are so many more resources available online than in my day. (Who am I kidding: there was no ‘online’ in my day. I remember buying History Today merely for the pictures I could cut out for my handmade worksheets. Hours they took…) By all means look for what is available, but don’t assume you can find a ready-made lesson. You have got to plan your own, if you ever want to learn how.
  3. Be humble in the face of this hard thing called teaching. Realise you have a lot to learn. Appreciate those teachers around you who have learned how to do it. Ask for their advice. Avoid saying too loudly in the staffroom things like, ‘I don’t know why Miss Simpson finds Charlie so hard to handle. He’s great with me.’
  4. Teacher Standard 8. I never used to think it, but it’s the main one for me. Being a professional means doing all those things above. Standards 1-7 don’t inevitably follow, but they won’t come at all without taking a thoroughly serious approach to your own learning.

Second placement for PGCE students starts soon, thus the timing of this blog. I hope one or two find their way here. I hope also that one or two mentors take a look too: it’s worth all of us remembering how lucky we are to be involved with trainees  at the very start of this great profession. That’s why we are in this game after all. Isn’t it?

Don’t waste time observing!

There were only about 8 in the class, including normally very rowdy boys and a couple of near-mute girls. Ruth, the Senco, was teaching them PSE, or something similar. I had been having problems controlling behaviour, and it had been gently suggested to me that I might observe Ruth. I was in my first year of teaching, but this was after the days of ‘probation’ and before the days of ‘NQT induction’, so whatever programme I had was ad hoc at best.

I sat at the back of Ruth’s classroom. A couple of the boys were insulting each other, and the girls shared a make-up mirror, but the atmosphere was relaxed and cooperative. Ruth introduced the topic and the kids were immediately engaged. I can’t remember the topic, and I couldn’t see what in particular she did to hook them. I knew enough already to realise that she was working hard and making it look easy: she made sure she addressed comments to each child, especially if she spotted them wavering. But I couldn’t locate whatever magic she had that I didn’t. I concluded that these kids were just ‘good for Ruth’, in a way they were not with me.

It really isn’t easy learning from watching someone else. It strikes me that there are essentially two types of observations going on in schools. The first is where the observer is assessing the teacher. I do a lot of this with PGCE students, NQTs, for appraisal. With younger teachers I won’t usually be putting a grade on the lesson, but they will still demand an evaluative adjective from me, and will still expect me to prescribe a dose of something to make them better. Where the lesson is graded, this can come down to, So how could I have made this outstanding?  The observer in these cases is not really trying to learn anything; they are simply looking for evidence to grade, and a form of words to let their colleague down gently. I exaggerate, but there is no escaping the simple truth: the observer is not the learner.

The second common type of observation is that undertaken by student teachers or NQTs as part of their development programme. There are PGCEs students in schools this week following a schedule of observations, perhaps doing very little else. There are NQTs, instructed by their mentors to use some of their 10% timetable reduction to ‘watch and learn.’ Sometimes they come and observe me. Oftentimes I direct them to someone on a ‘peer observation’ list I keep for the purpose. In they go; out they come. Somewhere a target will have been ‘met’ or a standard ‘addressed’. Everyone is happy, but what ‘learning’, if any, has occurred? I wonder: do we even ask?

Again, I exaggerate: the process is surely never as ho-hum as that. But I still think the question persists: What about the learning?

If we take a step back, and consider what we already know about learning, maybe we can make observation a little more productive. The learners we usually deal with – our students – would not take in very much if we merely expected them to observe us. Very little of our teaching is about being watched, instructing, performing in front of someone sitting anonymously at the back of the room. Rather, we expect learning to be active, and inter-active, with learners usually moving through a taxonomy of applying, analysing and creating in the space of one lesson. Learning also involves a degree of reiteration, practice and gradual perfection. Importantly, we presume learning is best when its objectives are clear and explicit. In sum, learning happens when it is purposeful and progressive.

Now ask: does this kind of learning have a chance of occurring when we put teachers in the back of rooms to watch other teachers? My guess is, not often.

But we do spend an awful lot of time doing it. Oh, the hours! I would be grateful for any replies to this from people who think they have secured good learning from teacher observation. But here I will record a few of the things we do some of the time, but should do more often than we do.

  • Our ‘peer observation’ card lists staff who are willing to be observed. Crucially, they are grouped by area of pedagogical expertise. So, some are happy to be seen doing groupwork, others are whizzes in behaviour management.
  • The same card also lists the staff who are willing to observe others. We realised a little while ago that many teachers stop observing others once they get past induction; likewise, outside of the pressures of appraisal and review, few staff get to try out a teaching strategy and get feedback on it from a sympathetic colleague.
  • Aside from the formal lesson observation forms we use for grading purposes, we have developed half a dozen others which each has a specific focus, e.g. independent learning, literacy, student engagement, behaviour management. Each is structured as a sort of checklist of features that might be seen in a lesson, with space for notes by the observer. The reverse asks the observer to compile 5 learning points; then recompile them after discussing them with a colleague.
  • An integral feature of induction at my school now is NQT Blogging. They have a session where they are introduced to some teaching strategies – two weeks ago our AST and others shared some AfL ideas with them. They then have two to three weeks to observe a colleague, focusing on those strategies, then apply some of this in their own lessons. The NQTs then reconvene as a group to blog their reflections, making sure they each follow each other and post constructive comments.

In these ways, I hope to ensure that observation has a ‘learning objective’ or focus. There is also the chance that it will take the observer-learner through the understanding-applying-analysing-creating phases that we know assist learning. None of this is yet embedded or widespread, and I’m still developing my thinking on it. But, with a little bit of this, I might have made a lot more of my time watching Ruth all those years ago, and those kids might have been ‘good for me’ too.