Learning in the Classroom: Richard Willis Believes the Government Should Pay Attention to the History of Teacher-Training in Its Plans for School-Based Training Schemes for Graduates

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THERE IS NOW, AS THERE WAS ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO, more than one method of becoming a teacher. The most common way for graduates is still to study for a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) or a Bachelor of Education (BEd) degree, but another method, growing in popularity, is by the graduate teacher programme (GTP), introduced in 1997 following wide political debate. Graduate trainees do not attend training college, but learn 'on the job', spend most of their day in school and are instructed almost wholly by practising teachers. In the academic year 2006-07 more than 5,000 trainees, some 13 per cent of the student teacher intake, chose the GTP route.

A number of criticisms of the GTP have emerged, It is argued that properly educated teachers really need to understand the context in which they work and so can benefit from learning in training colleges about the history and sociology of education--and, indeed, of staffrooms--and studying comparative teaching methodology. Government inspectors have indicated that GTP trainees do not always fulfil their potential and that their delivery of lessons has been found to be wanting. One reason is that trainees are not being given the opportunity to sufficiently develop understanding of their subject during their training programme. The NUT has pointed out that to have teaching experience in one school only is a myopic form of training, which is restricted even further by inadequate academic and theoretical input from a narrow base of trained teachers in schools, who may themselves only have received on-the-job training.

What is astonishing is that the GTP, by shutting the training-college door on trainees, gives them less opportunity than their nineteenth-century counterparts, the pupil-teachers of Victorian England. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, elementary education for the poor was provided by the various voluntary and religious sects. To meet the problem of teacher supply, in 1846 the government set up the pupil-teacher system under which would-be teachers began a five-year apprenticeship at the age of thirteen, while still at school themselves. They taught in the school while simultaneously studying for a competitive examination that, taken at the end of their five-years' service, would qualify them for a Queen's Scholarship to enter a training college. Here they would study subject knowledge as well as the theory and practice of education before qualifying as certificated teachers.

The pupil-teacher system was widely regarded as a great and successful innovation, but by the end of the nineteenth century many, including Robert Morant, Permanent Secretary at the Board of Education, wanted to reform it. He and the Board thought that practical experience of teaching in elementary schools should be postponed until a natural break occurred in the pupil's general education. Pupil teaching was also associated with large classes--the result of financial constraints--and with mechanical styles of teaching.

So in April 1907 the Board of Education sanctioned the introduction of a new 'student-teacher' scheme as an alternative. Funded by the local education authorities that had been brought into being by the Education Act of 1902, the scheme gave prospective teachers, at the age of seventeen, a year of practical teaching experience in an elementary school before they went on to complete a two-year residential course in a training college. It was Morant himself, charismatic and vastly influential, who succeeded in getting the student-teacher scheme adopted. Many on the Board were more hesitant about its advantages. There was an underlying feeling that it might interfere with a programme of teacher training that was embedded in long-standing practice and policy. Concern was also expressed over the feasibility of leaving student teachers entirely to the control of staff in the elementary schools.

The Board had originally envisaged the new scheme as an experiment, but the possibility of introducing further structural reforms was hampered by practical financial and logistical considerations. …