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. Nevertheless it took hold, on the surface at any rate, and in 1923 as many as 45 per cent of new recruits to training colleges had served as student teachers; many more, however, had proceeded directly from studentships to uncertificated positions in schools. These uncertificated teachers could either sit later for the Certificate Examination of the Board of Education for Acting Teachers or enter a training college. The presence of so many uncertificated teachers led to questions about the low take-up of places in the training colleges and why the reform of 1907 had been so slow to kick in.

In 1925, Viscount Burnham, proprietor of the Daily Telegraph, headed a review of teacher training by the Board of Education. This recommended that the continuation of the student-teacher scheme should be discouraged. Its decision was affected, firstly, by economic considerations--that is, 'the economy of public funds'--and, secondly, by the expansion of university education, which offered a more attractive route for graduates to enter teaching. However, representatives from the local authorities, many of whom considered that the training college courses were too steeped in educational theory, showed a willingness to fund and continue with the student-teacher scheme.

The committee heard evidence that the school-based year of training was often wasted. In areas where comparatively high numbers of student teachers had collectively embarked on the programme, head-teachers occasionally made adequate provision for their instruction--the educational historian Lance Jones has found one such case in West Wiltshire in the 1920s--but this was very much the exception to the rule. Students complained that the subjects they were taught at training college were unrelated to what they had learnt during their student-teacher year. Brian Sawkin, who qualified as a teacher in 1922, commented that at his college, Goldsmiths', he was never questioned about his student-teacher year. Other former teachers considered that the year disrupted the student's intellectual development. There was no agreement over the exact purpose of the year, the result being that students neither received satisfactory training in teaching nor continued their general education with any degree of success.

Student teachers complained of the mundane tasks they were sometimes given, such as having to sort medical records, hang pictures and carry out routine clerical duties; others were critical of the isolation they experienced. One spoke about how she had to feed the goldfish and fill the inkwells among other duties. Gerald Phillips, who was a student teacher in Portsmouth in 1926, considered that while he found the year a positive one, a number of other teachers 'hadn't got a lot out of student teaching'.

There was a notable decline in student-teacher numbers in the late 1920s and 1930s, but the scheme only came to an end in 1950, with Newcastle being the last locality to offer a programme. The interviews Peter Cunningham, Philip Gardner, Bobbie Wells, Wendy Robinson and myself recorded with former student teachers from these years make up an archive of teacher memory at Cambridge University and form the basis of the book, Becoming Teachers, Texts and Testimonies 1907-1950 (2004). This focuses on the unexpected longevity of the student-teacher scheme and suggests that it offered an upward mobile path from the working classes to the middle class.

Since 1950, the trend has been to train potential teachers in the necessary skills for their chosen profession through a combination of teaching practice in schools and attendance at a training college or university.

The government would do well to learn some important lessons from the past. Policy-makers appear to have been oblivious to recent historical research into the development of teacher-training in the formative years of the twentieth century, but an understanding of this history could help illuminate some of the issues facing school-based training. The GTP seems to some people to resemble a plumber's apprenticeship. By marginalizing the training college it ignores the best efforts of our Victorian and Edwardian forebears, and by relying on a school-based training it fails to remember the weaknesses of the old student-teacher scheme. Remembering hard-won experience in this area will surely invigorate the work and careers of new recruits to the profession and offer them sound grounding in the vocation they intend to follow.


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