Open Eye: The New Approach to Teacher Education the OU Is the Country's Largest Single Provider of New Teachers, Most of Whom Have Come from Other Jobs
Education, education, education is the key to our future, according to Tony Blair. Teachers are obviously a key ingredient in a learning society and how to attract enough people into the teaching profession is a question that has exercised governments over the past few years.
One answer has been to open up new routes into the profession, particularly for mature entrants. And as a result, the country's biggest single provider of new teachers is now the Open University. Around 1,000 new teachers are emerging every year from its initial teacher training programme, most of whom have come from work or training in some other profession.
The average age of the new teacher is 34. When the OU's Post Graduate Certificate in education (PGCE) programme took its first recruits in 1994, it was the country's first fully-developed initial teacher training programme to offer part-time study.
Its aim was to tap into a perceived reservoir of talent - people in and around the 30-45 age group who may be considering a career change to teaching, but for financial or other reasons were unable to take year out to train full-time.
A part-time course spread over 18 months, with in-school experience divided up into blocks of three to six weeks, was devised to allow would-be teachers to fit their training around their jobs and/or family commitments.
The course was innovative in content too. One of its key elements is the use of information technology as an integral part of the learning experience. Every student joining the PGCE programme is loaned (free of charge) a computer, printer and modem to prepare work and to take part in electronic conferencing with tutors and other students.
Close partnerships with individual schools are also key to the programme: student teachers themselves select the school where they do their main placement (teaching practice). Within the school they are allocated a mentor - a trained and experienced teacher, to support them.
"The majority of people who do the course are between 26 and 48, and they come from a wide variety of backgrounds," says Penny Lewis, Deputy Director of the PGCE (Post-Graduate Certificate in Education) programme. "They are people who have other skills and life experience to bring to their teaching. These can be really valuable to the school and to the children." Greeted with suspicion in some quarters when it was first launched, the programme has proved that it can produce high-quality teachers; this was recognised with the award of a Queens Anniversary Prize for Further and HIgher Education in 1996. Already the OU's School of Education is embarking on the planning of its PGCE Mark 2, due to replace the current programme in 2001. But how to go about equipping teachers for the new millennium?
The key is flexibility, made possible by new technology, according to the School of Education's lecturer in primary education Hilary Burgess.
"We are looking at structuring the new course so that there will be some printed materials which are central, such as the course guide; but other elements will be produced in a multimedia format - which means they can be changed very quickly."
The high priority being given to education by the government naturally leads to a keen interest in teacher training. In April this year the Department for Education and Employment produced its Circular 4/98 which, effectively, creates for the first time a "national curriculum" for teacher training.
"If you look at the number of changes made to the national curriculum for schools since it came into being, it's likely that this one, too, will be changed and refined over time," says Hilary. "Hence the need for a course which can respond quickly."
What kind of technology will it use? Online conferencing and computers are already an integral part of the course and will remain so, and it seems likely that CD-ROM and the Internet will play a key role. …