Wednesday, 11 March 2009

More With Less

I've been trying to sort out how I feel about this new initiative to swipe talented professionals from other jobs and slap them into teachers. My original, visceral reaction was that, as tiresome as I found a lot of things in my PGCE, it's not immediately obvious how fully one-half of it could be jettisoned without adversely affecting the quality of the course.

I'm still wondering that, but I think that there's a series of more specific questions that need answering.

  1. How is the entrance criteria going to be determined? It's all very well claiming only the most talented will be chosen, but how does one determine how well, say, a chemical engineer will do in the classroom purely based on his job performance to date? Moreover, why can't this litmus test, whatever it is, be applied to graduates fresh out of university?
  2. What evidence is there that to suggest that there a significant (or even non-zero) number of professionals whose only reason for not going into teaching is that the training course is a full year? Low wages, high stress, and poisonous children are the reasons I've most often been given by those who have left teaching or who don't want to even try it. The latter two won't be changed by this new scheme, and if the pay structure is different for those who go through this alternate route, then that's going to cause real problems with regard to teacher morale. The unions would shit out their own heads, too.
  3. Following on from the above, is the implication here really that half a standard PGCE course is designed to professionalise graduates and permit crappy applicants to get up to speed? Is there any evidence that either of these things is necessary in any case? In other words, what is it that prevents the current standard course from being truncated, other than the nebulous idea of talent?

With regard to that final question, I am of course willing to grant that there are plenty of crappy candidates that get on PGCE courses. I trained with some of them, and far more of them passed than were failed. It seems obvious to me that you have to be a pretty fucking awful teacher before you're worse than no teacher at all, which is why these people get through (and why anyone ever who starts wittering about kicking out failing teachers without changing any other aspect of the status quo is talking out of their arse).

So in theory I can get on board with the idea that you could tighten up entry requirements and then shorten the course without the worst graduates from your new course being any poorer than those of the original PGCE. As I say, though, how well can any set of entry requirements filter out those who aren't particularly talented at teaching? As a job it requires a pretty unique mix of skills, that are difficult to test in isolation and as far as I know impossible to test in combination, except by practice. Which is why it took me a year to qualify, because there's only so fast anyone can read up on educational theory, discuss it, and put it into action, no matter how awesome an accountant they used to be.

All of which is to say nothing of the inherent problems with running two simultaneous training courses, saying one is for more talented people, and then letting the graduates from both into the same job market. It's pretty worrying that the government's answer to PGCE's being insufficiently attractive is to tempt the best and brightest into an alternative scheme. If this goes forward, applicants for PGCEs will be those either rejected by the brand new uber-teacher scheme (now with 50% less actual fucking work) or be ineligible to enter it in the first place; why else sign up for six months you don't need? So on top of all the reasons people don't like the idea of teacher training to begin with, now you've got people with a chip on their shoulder and in some cases a priori evidence of being sub-optimal candidates, who have to work twice as long to get to the same place, and then compete against those who are coming down from the shining city on the hill for the same positions.

In summary, I'm far from convinced many people would want to take advantage of this scheme, and I'm even less convinced that it proving popular would be an even remotely good thing for the profession as a whole.

Update: I mentioned this to a friend of mine still in the profession whilst at the quiz this evening. We agreed that as far as we could see, training someone to be an effective teacher in six months would be impossible, though perhaps one could spend that time building a robot to do the job.

I should have guessed that the Japanese would be one step ahead...

8 comments:

Senior Spielbergo said...

While I wait the hour as my main computer throws 4 cores and 16GB of RAM at the task of rendering out a color graded scene, I have of course been reading your blog on my laptop and spotted this one.

Now 1st up I think your in a much better position to judge this sort of thing than me, and 2nd up I think I instinctively agree with you but just thought I would throw a thought or two out there:

Now if I'm reading the idea correctly this would have no effect on the "standard" route into teaching , i.e. you get a degree and then do a PCGE course (again willing to concede that this may not be the standard route if you tell me otherwise but this is what I understand it to be). Personally I wouldn't have thought it would be negative to those people to have a course that exists that while shorter, requires you to go off and do several years in industry as you would have thought if they are doing a PCGE now they would want to be a teacher in a year, not in 10 years after doing something else for 9 and a half years.

In terms of what it is aiming to do - I.e. target people who have gone elsewhere and aren't currently teaching but working in some other field - I think by saying that no one is going to be influenced by the course being half the length is actually missing the point. Your right I don't think anyone of any caliber is going to be influenced by that, but I do think there are 2 possible psychological benefits that may help.

1) People instinctively don't like taking a step backwards. If you have been working for 10 years after finishing your degree, in a field and you consider going to become a teacher it is going to feel like a step in the one direction if you have to go and do the same things as if you just graduated. In terms of career progression you should have gone straight after graduation into a PCGE and started teaching straight away. Those 10 years of working really hard in the field appear to be just wasted. Now having a "special" course for these people, and then accelerated promotion type things that take into account those years "out and about" at the very least gives the impression that it is not a step backward, it is not going back to stage 1, and those years in industry then don't appear to be wasted.

2) A lot of older people have an aversion to going back and going to school. There is (in some people) an element of fear in going back to Uni and being stuck in a classroom as the only 40 year old in a class full of 22 year olds. This alternative course I imagine would include people of all age groups and therefore would not appear as threatening as they would be among pears and not out of their element.

Just some thoughts anyway - I would however agree that the standard of teaching teachers must still be maintained, but I have no basis to form an opinion on if stuff learned out "in the real world" (God I sound like someone out of the Matrix) would somehow allow you to skip half of a PCGE course and still get the same education. Instinctively though I suspect not.

SpaceSquid said...

"Now if I'm reading the idea correctly this would have no effect on the "standard" route into teaching , i.e. you get a degree and then do a PCGE course"

It would affect it insofar as running a parallel, shorter course for "more talented" individuals will worsen the quality of the intake. It can't not, unless the number of people who would apply for the six month course but not the one year course equals zero, and I can tell you from experience that this is not the case.

The degree to which that difference matters can be debated, but I don't think it contentious to say that the difference would exist.

Your point about the psychology of not having wasted their time is an interesting one, that I had not considered. I'm not convinced that "Well I would teach if only there was some way to feel like the last decade has had some relevance" line of thought would be sufficiently satisfied by "shorter course", but it's certainly an interesting argument.

"There is (in some people) an element of fear in going back to Uni and being stuck in a classroom as the only 40 year old in a class full of 22 year olds. This alternative course I imagine would include people of all age groups and therefore would not appear as threatening as they would be among pears and not out of their element."

I was once threatened by a pear, so I know how nasty they can be. They do make for good cider, though.

In seriousness, I again take the point, but if we were really concerned about this we could just run PGCE courses under a different name for "mature students", rather than offer a qualitatively different course.

Senior Spielbergo said...

“"Now if I'm reading the idea correctly this would have no effect on the "standard" route into teaching , i.e. you get a degree and then do a PCGE course"

It would affect it insofar as running a parallel, shorter course for "more talented" individuals will worsen the quality of the intake. It can't not, unless the number of people who would apply for the six month course but not the one year course equals zero, and I can tell you from experience that this is not the case.

The degree to which that difference matters can be debated, but I don't think it contentious to say that the difference would exist.”

Just to clarify and this may well be that I am just reading it wrong, but I thought you could only get into the shorter course if you had already been working in industry for a number of years? In other words there wouldn’t be an option for someone who has just finished a degree to apply for the shorter course and get in based on ability. Everyone who goes straight in (or in after a small number of years in industry) would still only have the option of the 1 year course and therefore in principle it wouldn’t diminish the talent pool. I was reading it that you had to have been working for a number of years (didn’t notice the specific number of years) in order to apply for this, or have I got that wrong?

I would still tend to lean in your direction that cutting the material in half can’t possibly be a good thing, but I lack the knowledge to be able to confirm that (for all I know you could spend 9 months of the PCGE sitting in the pub talking trash, in which case they could well potentially trim some of this pub time – but I suspect that is not the case). So I’m prepared to accept your view in that regard.

SpaceSquid said...

I don't think you're quite getting my point. There are four types of people who might want to teach. Talented people with non-teaching job experience, talented people without any job experience, and talentless people with or without job experience.

At the moment all four apply for a PGCE if they want to teach. My point is that setting up an alternative (and shorter) route only available to group 1 means the PGCE will then only be able to draw from groups 2 to 4. Group 4 is the worst case scenario anyway, people who are both crappy and undeveloped professionally. Group 3 will be made up of people who tried to get into the shorter course, and were rebuffed, making them of questionable benefit and putting a chip on their shoulder.

Thus it will diminish the talent pool for PGCEs. In effect, you are ensuring that everyone on a PGCE will be either crap or professionally inexperienced (or both). This is not a particularly smart move when trying to attract more people to the profession.

As to the cutting things in half, over my year I spent 15 weeks teaching, three weeks in schools preparing to teach, and the rest of the time writing five essays, attending educational theory lectures and doing the accompanying reading, and crossing off the seemingly endless list of necessary standards we each were given. If memory serves, maybe a tenth of those standards were things that could be assumed from someone who has already held down a job. Nothing else I did over the period was anything I would expect could just be considered a given just because someone had worked before.

Senior Spielbergo said...

It does seem to be that therefore that the proposal has very little in the way of merits unless for some reason the number of applicants in your “Group 1” is disproportionally low. In that case the reduction in the talent pool would be minimum as it was a tiny group in the first place, and if it expanded on the group it would logically result in you getting more teachers. Again got no idea what proportion of people fall into this group, but I guess it would have to be a pretty small percentage for this scenario to be the case.

I think I’m 90% convinced it isn’t a positive thing, but you never know as it may bag a few more teachers into the mix. I guess you’ve got to try something and I doubt there are any easy solutions to the problem. Over here we just pay them more and try to steal the good ones off you (but then you get into the whole, “do you really want a teacher who wouldn’t be teaching if he was paid £5,000 less” argument).

SpaceSquid said...

"It does seem to be that therefore that the proposal has very little in the way of merits unless for some reason the number of applicants in your “Group 1” is disproportionally low. In that case the reduction in the talent pool would be minimum as it was a tiny group in the first place, and if it expanded on the group it would logically result in you getting more teachers. Again got no idea what proportion of people fall into this group, but I guess it would have to be a pretty small percentage for this scenario to be the case."

This is where the problems come in. If Group 1 disproportionately small, what reason is there to believe it would grow significantly with the new scheme being available? If it's quite high, why do we need the new scheme at all?

It seems there needs to be a critical mass of Group 1's for it to work, along with an accompanying number of people who would be Group 1, but aren't willing to step up until you halve the training time. The two assumptions combined makes for a rather tenuous justification.

"I guess you’ve got to try something and I doubt there are any easy solutions to the problem."

I agree with both these points. I'm not saying it can't work, just that I'd need a lot more information before I'd be prepared to sign off on it. Also, let's not forget that new schemes like this are often very expensive for the government (the Fast Track Scheme, for exampl, was pretty costly), so you need something more concrete than "we'll give it a go." If all that happens is the government pisses a load of money away and aggravates the unions, then that would be a fairly costly mistake.

"Over here we just pay them more and try to steal the good ones off you (but then you get into the whole, “do you really want a teacher who wouldn’t be teaching if he was paid £5,000 less” argument)."

I think it's time people got over the idea that a teacher should be so dedicated to their job that the money doesn't matter. Mainly because it's part of a much larger fallacy that tries to draw correlations between the variables of dedication, finance, and sheer work put in. It irritates me. If the economic realities of the UK mean teachers don't get paid enough (assuming for the sake of argument that this is the case), then that's something I can live with, but the implication that there is some negative connotation to wanting more money irks me. It also leads to the "firemen can't strike because they're too important" line of thinking; it perversely concludes that the more vital a job the less those doing it should desire payment, and the less their dissatisfaction need be taken into account.

Senior Spielbergo said...

Hey I’m totally supportive of teachers getting more money, that wasn’t what I was suggesting at all. The argument I was putting forward wasn’t my own, it was merely the argument that always seems to come up when you suggest that maybe paying teachers more would mean you get more teachers (God forbid). “People” (don’t know who they are but they are out there) will make the argument that the extra teachers who you recruit by paying them £5K more will clearly be rubbish teachers because they clearly didn’t really want to be teachers in the first place and don’t care about the kids only the cash.

Just to confirm I don’t agree with this argument, and I’ve always been of the view that just because the majority of people who go into banking and accounting might do so for the cash, doesn’t mean you don’t come out the end with at least some good bankers and accountants (well maybe not bankers in the present climate, maybe I should have used lawyers as the example).

SpaceSquid said...

Sorry, Senor; I didn't mean to suggest I believed it to be your view. I knew it wasn't, I just thought it was worth shooting it down ahead of time.