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How Useful is Pre-Course School Experience for Trainee Teachers?

Pre-course experience won’t stop new teachers suffering from shock when they get their first placements because challenges of the job vary...

  • How Useful is Pre-Course School Experience for Trainee Teachers?

During the final year of her geography degree, Abigail decided that she would like to become a teacher.

She applied for a place on a teacher training course and was told that she should go and get some experience of being in a school.

She contacted a local school and spent a week there, after which she could say she had gained some ‘school experience’.

How useful was it?

“The main thing I learnt was never use someone else’s mug, tea, coffee or milk without checking that it’s OK.”

Apparently, there had been a confrontation in the staff room involving a stray ‘World’s Best Teacher’ mug; the time spent sitting in a few lessons, hearing some children read and having the occasional chat with some staff made less of an impression.

Six months later, Abigail dropped out of her course.

She had found her first placement to be incredibly challenging; there were so many children with special needs, so many with behavioural problems.

“I was shocked, it was nothing like the local school I visited in June,” she told me.

Earlier this year, the two main groups representing teacher training providers stated that changes to the DfE criteria were leading to a higher number of trainee dropouts.

The DfE guidance states that “lack of school experience should not be a reason for rejecting an otherwise suitable applicant”.

It seems that some have interpreted this as a total ban on asking for school experience prior to application, but I don’t read it that way.

If a candidate looks like they’ve got everything going for them, you can’t reject them simply because they haven’t been in school for a while.

But this doesn’t mean that school experience can’t be recommended for candidates where it would obviously be beneficial.

The DfE clearly thinks there’s some value in pre-course school experience because they continue to promote the School Experience Programme for those considering getting into teaching.

There’s no doubt that these are tough times for teacher training providers. They are expected to recruit good numbers of trainees but must only sign up those who have the potential to meet the standards.

They must put all candidates through a ‘rigorous selection process’, but obviously not so rigorous that potential teachers might get rejected.

Candidates go through interviews, audits and micro-teaching as well as the literacy and numeracy skills tests before starting to train.

Providers may have to take risks with some candidates, but need to be cautious as they are likely to be penalised by Ofsted if too many trainees drop out before qualifying.

However, are trainees really dropping out because they didn’t get pre-course school experience? I spoke to a group who had recently dropped out. My very limited research suggested that the issues were a little more complex than I first thought.

“If my pre-course experience school was anything like my first placement school I wouldn’t have started the course,” said one; another, who hadn’t gained any pre-course school experience, cited similar issues with pupil behaviour and workload.

One trainee said she was emotionally exhausted in dealing with the personal circumstances of some of the children in her first placement school.

Many years ago I moved from a job in an incredibly challenging inner-city school to one in a much more affluent suburban area. I soon realised that being a teacher in these two schools was an entirely different job.

When the leadership changed, when Ofsted visited, a whole new set of challenges emerged.

I concluded that the challenges of teaching depend to a great extent on the hundreds of contextual factors that make an individual school what it is.

And perhaps that’s why I come across talented teachers who love their jobs and equally talented teachers who are drained and burnt-out.

A short spell of school experience won’t stop our trainee teachers suffering from shock. They need a more in-depth pre-course understanding of what the job can entail.

An NQT speaking to a group of potential trainees recently described her training year as “the best and worst year of my life”. The raw, heartfelt testimony that followed was probably more enlightening to candidates than five days in a school where the highlight was an argument about mug ownership.

If the DfE are really serious about recruitment, they need to look more closely at the dozens of issues around teacher workload, resilience and emotional wellbeing – as well as the increasing demands around pupils’ mental health, special needs and family issues.


Julie Price Grimshaw is a teacher, trainer and education adviser. She has been involved in school inspections since 2001. Find her at selfpropelledlearning.co.uk and follow her on Twitter at @julespg.

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