The times they are a changin': how can we improve the PGCE?

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Back in the dim and distant mists of time when I embarked on my Post-graduate Certificate in Education, there was no other way to train as a teacher. Much of my training was interesting and I largely enjoyed the subject specific content. But the generic stuff on professional practice was pretty awful and has largely been expunged from memory. I felt hopelessly unprepared for my first teaching practice, but then I expect that’s true of most or many, but despite lots of classroom experience, lectures and having written a dissertation I was still hopelessly unprepared on being awarded QTS. I had only the sketchiest ideas on how to plan lessons, mark work and ensure that students were kept on track. My behaviour management was woeful and my ability to cope with the stresses and strains of the NQT year left me a shambling and ragged mess.
How could this have happened? Is cramming everything into a 1 year course a recipe for a fairly shallow experience? In retrospect, I can see that my approach to teaching had a lot in common with the cargo cults on remote south seas islands at the beginnings of the 20th century. These primitive peoples would observe the trappings of European civilisation and see that when westerners built airports, planes full of precious cargo would land. Now, it’s pretty difficult to work out the size and shape of an iceberg just from observing its tip and likewise, it was impossible for these primitives to understand all the technological underpinning of delivering cargo. We may well feel inclined to smile indulgently at the naivety of building an airport out of bamboo and expecting planes to land, but this is embarrassingly similar to the conclusions I drew during teacher training.
Although I saw teachers teaching lessons and students learning, I was only seeing the tip of an enormously complex iceberg. I was given a lesson planning pro forma which asked at the beginning to state my teaching objective but my idea of how I would know such an objective before I started planning was hazy, to say the least.  As far as I could see, schemes of work just seemed to be series of lesson plans with little or no regard to what needed to be taught or learned in the medium or long term. So small wonder perhaps that I planned lessons packed full of activities designed to keep my students occupied and then trying to work out what my objective seemed to be.  I was so ignorant I wasn’t even able to spot that my cargo hadn’t arrived. Post lesson analysis was restricted to whether students behaved and were engaged. As long as they were busy, I was happy.
It was only after several years of teaching that I was able to see my PGCE course for the utter waste of time it was. It wouldn’t be true to say I learned nothing: I had to actively unlearn all the rubbish I’d picked up before I could get on with the business of being a half-way decent teacher.
But things are very different now, aren’t they? Surely my experiences of teacher training are a thing of the past? Well, although I still encounter many tales of woe, trainee teachers definitely seem to know a lot more than I did so I’m sure the quality of courses must have improved. But the biggest change of recent years is that fact that PGCE is no longer the only route into teaching. Joe Kirby has blogged eloquently on the future of teacher training and the following statistics are taken from his post:

  • 2009: 80% of 35,000 new teachers trained with universities
  • 2011: the first 100 teaching schools delivered over 10,000 ITT places (nearly 30%)
  • 2015: up to 50% of teacher training will be school-led by a network of 500 teaching school alliances.

Worse still, from this September, academies and Free Schools were under no obligation to appoint teachers with QTS (or in fact any qualifications at all!) Anecdotally, I’ve heard some rumblings about Schools Direct and its failure to live up to expectations so maybe the 2015 figure will prove to be wide of the mark. But even so, if universities are to cope with these challenges, what should they do? What can they offer that a School Direct or Teach First root might not cover? The obvious answer is expertise. Universities are (or bloody well should be) centres of academic excellence and their ability to conduct research in partnership with schools should be far more important than it currently seems to be. But what difference might this make to trainees?
This morning I asked Twitter how PGCE courses could be improved and got some useful responses which I’ve separated into the following areas:
One of the most useful functions of ITT is that it filters out people who are not suited to teaching. This is a good thing as no one wants uncommitted teachers. Or do we? Maybe we can learn some valuable lessons from the success of Teach First. Famously, Teach Firsters are asked to commit to a minimum of 2 years after gaining QTS. While some undoubtably move on after this point, may don’t. This figures are apparently not too different to the number of teachers who leave the profession from all roots and seeing as 50% of teachers leave within 5 years, maybe this question is moot? For me though, the real lesson PGCE providers can learn is in the quality of graduates accepted. Maybe recruitment onto PGCE course should be much more rigorous? Certainly, if PGCE comes to be seen as an entry root for less well qualified teachers, it’s reputation will quickly deteriorate.
And while we’re discussing recruitment, who should be teaching the PGCE? There is a need for elements of the course to be led by current teachers – maybe tutors from partner schools could deliver more of the course content. Or, more radically, perhaps universities should try to recruit successful teachers on 1 or 2 year secondments? Both of these measures would ensure that there isn’t the perception that someone who may not have taught for years is responsible for perpetuating dodgy messages about ‘what works’. Within this, there should still be a place for academic researchers who work with schools to conduct trials and lead professional development beyond QTS to escape the idea that the relationship between schools and universities ends after the PGCE.
Course structures
Another challenge for higher education institutions is how their courses should be structured. Typically, courses begin with some school experience in which trainees spend 2 weeks watching what goes on in classrooms. This is followed by a few weeks of lectures and seminars some of which is subject specific and some of which is generic. And then trainees have a phased introduction into the first placement school combined with university days. How much thinking do universities put into when different components of the course should be covered? What is most useful to cover before placements and what is most useful to cover during placements?
Also, how much requirement is there for trainees to read and report on educational research? My feeling is that this isn’t sufficiently valued, but surely universities should be at the forefront of bridging the gap between theory and practice. How could approaches to research like Lesson Study help trainees develop as critical practitioners? And, should training be more practical and hands on? A lot of what’s learned as part of PGCE course seems theoretical and not much use in the classroom. Instead, should universities invest time on practicing techniques to help teachers embed good habits for learning in their students? I learned to drive at the same time as I learned to teach and the two have always seemed analogous. As a novice driver there were so many actions I had to hold in mind and perform at the same time that I felt overwhelmed. But through repeated practice they became automatic and some months after passing my driving test I found I could zone out drive for miles without having once thought about the actions my brain and body were performing. The approach set out by Doug Lemov in Teach Like a Champion and Practice Perfect tries to take into account that teachers, like learner drivers, are subject to the limitations of cognitive load. Instead of just sharing theory, time could be spent on practising techniques to deal with poor behaviour, etc. so that it becomes automatic.
Course content
What should trainee teachers be taught? The feeling seems to be that most attention is given to subject content. Now, while we should be wary of assuming that trainees automatically have excellent subject knowledge, with robust recruitment we should be able to ensure that all are sufficiently expert in their chosen subjects. Possibly more important is pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). This is as much about understand how best to teach a subject as it is knowledge of the subject itself and will vary from subject to subject; teaching English is very different from teaching maths or MFL. With PCK of a subject comes knowledge of the mistakes students are likely to make, ways to explain abstract concepts, the importance of modelling as well as the best ways to assess whether students are making progress. One of the areas of PCK that I’m most excited about is genre pedagogy. Understanding the academic language of a subject and explicitly teaching students how to translate between their everyday language and the specialist language needed to succeed in schools. Generically discussing assessment or progress is of limited value as these things can look so different depending on the context of the subject.
But on the subject of generic content, the response from Twitter was overwhelming in its desire for better provision on behaviour management. Trainees need to be told that students’ misbehaviour is not their fault. No amount of creative lesson planning can make up for the fact that students choose where they will behave. Tom Bennett says that all schools are two very different places. The school of the experienced teacher and the senior leader often bears little resemblance to the school of the supply teacher or the NQT. Kids behave because of the routines and relationships embedded by individuals teachers, and these take time to develop. One boy I taught would behave pretty well in my lessons but would be appalling with a trainee I was mentoring. When I asked him why, he said it was because he had ADHD. I asked him, How come you don’t have ADHD in my lessons? Answer came there none. Any novice teacher, no matter how talented will need support. Schools which support teachers are good schools and those that don’t are terrible places, no matter the label given by Ofsted. You will only really be able to get behaviour sorted in a school which takes this seriously. But that said, if trainees were allowed to practice behaviour management techniques in the safe environment of the university, they would be better prepared for the harsh realities of the classroom.
And just as Ofsted are supposed to have no preferred model of teaching, so should universities. Teachers should be trained to be critical of theory and to investigate its impact. It’s vital that new teachers have the knowledge/skills debate and start to think about why they are teaching as well as how best to achieve their aims. Trainees need to discover what cognitive science has to tell us about how we learn and to explore the tensions between constructivism and Direct Instruction. They should see the value of deliberate practice and teaching for mastery as well as thinking about why and how to develop growth mindsets in themselves and their students. All of this is what makes teaching so much more exciting than the humdrum routine of ‘delivering content’ and teaching to the test.
Working with schools
The relationship between schools and higher education institutions can be worryingly remote. Seeing as universities compete for placement schools, you might think that they would try to create stronger bonds. But all too often mentors get minimal training and course tutors drop in two, maybe three times a year to monitor the progress of trainees. If PGCE course are to survive they must do more to develop these partnerships. This is where opportunities for research and the expertise of academics could really make a difference. The gap between practice and theory widens to a chasm after teachers complete their training, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
Universities could train and support schools in how to conduct action research and use Lesson Study to get teachers talking and thinking more about teaching. With academics such as Dylan Wiliam, Carol Dweck, John Hattie and Daniel Willingham leading the way when it comes to trying the understand the science of teaching, more PGCE courses should seek to exploit this by working closely with schools to lead CPD and conduct research. Is were to happen, not only could ITT improve but it could become a stepping stone to truly continuous professional development.
These are just some first thoughts and I’m sure there’s a lot more to consider. I’d be very grateful for any thoughts on what else we might do to improve teacher training.

Related posts

How can we retain the best teachers?
Scepticism not cynicism: what made my teacher training so good? by Michael Fordham
Why Michael Gove is wrong about QTS by Alex Quigley

2013-10-27T15:03:15+00:00October 27th, 2013|Featured, training|


  1. Kevin Moody October 27, 2013 at 4:08 pm - Reply

    We certainly do need to rethink teacher training. This won’t happen but surely a two year course would give individuals the space to develop and reflect ? Would still work out cheaper than training a nurse or doctor !

  2. Ann Cook October 27, 2013 at 5:14 pm - Reply

    2011: the first 100 teaching schools delivered over 10,000 ITT places
    Are you certain about these figures for teaching schools? Taking the mean, each teaching school trained 100 teachers!

    • David Didau October 27, 2013 at 6:11 pm - Reply

      Hmm – no, I’m not certain – I sourced them from Joe Kirby’s blog. I suspect the 10,000 figure may actually refer to all School Direct places. Thanks though, I’ll check.

  3. […] via Times they are a changin’: how can we improve the PGCE? | David Didau: The Learning Spy. […]

  4. judeenright October 27, 2013 at 7:23 pm - Reply

    The Institute of Education has invited us to a meeting about becoming a research school, which is an excellent direction to take to support greater links between the classroom and the ITT provider. Saying that, we had 20 trainees from the Institute on first placement last year (we appointed two), but just six this year which is very worrying.
    You are right, one year is not enough, and it would be great to work closely with the IoE to adopt a consistent approach to developing our professionalism in all of the teaching standards, on a coherent programme which does not end after a year , but carries on throughout our careers.
    Also Ofsted inspectors will be making note of which ITT provider or route in was used for every NQT observation, so expect future ructions as a result of this.

    • David Didau October 27, 2013 at 8:40 pm - Reply

      Hi Jude – one question. You say, “Ofsted inspectors will be making note of which ITT provider or route in was used for every NQT observation, so expect future ructions”
      What does this mean? Are we to infer that Ofsted have a preferred ITT provider? Worryingly bizarre.

  5. Tim Eaglestone (@eaglestone) October 27, 2013 at 8:00 pm - Reply

    Just to note on recruitment that there is a difference between someone who is not suited and someone who is not committed. The later might have the potential to be a great teacher but have different motivations or reasons for not being able to commit. If the interview process does not catch someone who is not suited then the first teaching practice on a PGCE using forces the issue.
    While it would make sense for universities to take good teachers on secondments some schools would complain that the best teachers are being taken from the font-line. It can also take some time to step outside of one’s own institutionalisation and learn to read the contextual elements of effective practice. (My most effective CPD was stepping outside my school and supporting HoDs across an authority; engaging with and challenging HoDs caused an enormous amount of reflection on my practice.) Maybe a rolling programme would help?
    Behaviour management is always going to be a priority. Even back in my PGCE (19 years ago; uni element did not prepare me for anything), the notion that good behaviour somehow sprung from the right combination of activities, with bad behaviour resulting from poor planning, featured large. Trainees coming through today seem to still be getting this message which is setting them up for an initial few years of misery and self-doubt if behaviour is a problem.
    But the important thing for me is that a one-year PGCE can never prepare you for a career in teaching. It should be seen in the context of a programme of staff development that extends beyond the initial NQT year and on to some kind of expertise as a teacher. And it is here where we systematically fail new teachers. Some schools do a great job, but in many a teacher three years into the job just has to get on with it. And, as you point out, lots leave by five years. Locally provided INSET is often patchy and tied to whole-school priorities rather than individual needs. So one of the biggest improvements that can be made to the PGCE is to ensure that it inculcates the ability to dig in, identify one’s own needs and seek further development as survival skills for the job.

    • David Didau October 27, 2013 at 8:42 pm - Reply

      Thanks Tim. You’re right to say “a one-year PGCE can never prepare you for a career in teaching”. Maybe HEIs should have an obligation to offer NQT+1 – NQT+4 development to partner schools as a matter of course?

  6. 4c3d October 28, 2013 at 9:08 am - Reply

    My experience of training to be a teacher goes back to Cert Ed days. A three year course and a qualification to teach. The question is did it prepare me . The short answer “Yes and No”! I certainly felt that after 5 years of teaching I needed to “go back” and have a look again at a number of key areas, areas that with experience acquired a different perspective as a teacher rather than student. There were a few key points about teacher training then that need to be considered.
    1) You were not only expected to deepen and widen your own subject knowledge you were expected to develop and practice ways of teaching it. This is a fundamental step in becoming an effective teacher.
    2) The two teaching practices, one in the first year and a longer one in year three, helped to ensure that teaching was for you. It also placed you in schools used to dealing with student teachers and had built up a great deal of expertise in coaching and mentoring students.
    3) Understanding child development and needs to engage and build relationships with students was, in my experience, was too text book orientated. This is because I saw books as theory rather than excellent sources of sage and practical advice. I still have my copy of “How Children Fail” and re-reading it some 35 years later I am amazed at how much I missed! I am sure I would approach this aspect in a different way now. By the way my book, based on experience and research is called “Understanding Learning Needs” (copies from People who have read it have praised it for its practical down to earth approach to dealing with issues of behaviour and engagement. It is certainly I book I wished I had as a student.
    4) Teacher training, although three years long then, was not and now should not be seen as an end of the process. It is essential there are systems in place to continue with things like action research, refreshes, peer collaboration etc. I truly believe on aspect of education is to evolve, teaching needs to evolve with it.
    Things missing that I learnt for my self include:
    1) How to create a learning environment
    2) How to “listen” students and read situations
    3) Why fun, knowing names and to be willing to offer choices is so important
    Things I learnt from an experienced teacher (a little metaphysical in nature so don’t take them at face value) include:
    Always have a project on the go – show the students you are a learner too and always remember what it is like to learn something new.
    You can see all 12 of “John’s Rules” here:
    Finally the importance of not just teaching a subject but also teaching students about themselves and their capacities and needs as a learner. I have written much more on this final point which I call “Learning Quotient” or LQ. I believe this to be a major development in the practical concept of learning with proven significant benefits for those who look to manage their own learning or guide the learning of others. There are presently 14 articles covering areas such as LQ and the link to: creativity, resilience, empathy, initiative, transfer and many more. The link to the first article is here:
    Comments and questions always welcome 🙂

  7. Chris Curtis October 28, 2013 at 9:11 am - Reply

    Agree with this David. Not once on my PGCE course was I told about how the weather affects students, which is a key piece of information that NQTs need if they are teaching – today especially. The weather makes children behave in strange ways. All I got was a lot of ‘tips of the iceberg’ but not much of the ‘bottom of the iceberg’. I wasn’t best prepared. ; )

  8. […] After yesterday’s post on the subject of how to improve the PGCE, Lee Donaghy tweeted me to point out that I had neglected to mention the importance of trainee teachers learning knowledge about language, and specifically how language works in the particular subject in which they are training. He suggested writing a guest blog on this topic to add to my original blog and, naturally, I agreed. If you’re unclear who Lee is I why I would jump at the chance of putting up a guest post from him, have a quick look at his blog, What’s language doing here? Then, when you’ve appreciated its quality, peruse it thoroughly. And with that, over to Lee. […]

  9. Laura October 28, 2013 at 9:13 pm - Reply

    I’m currently doing my PGDE in Scotland and while I can agree with some of what is being said, some of your suggestions are already in force up here. I’m MFL and we have a subject tutor but also 4 associate tutors who are currently PTs in school but who also come out to do some if the subject-specific lectures for us as they are on the front-line. They also do some of our crits. Behaviour management has been covered pretty extensively (in general and subject lectures and tutorials) although I feel I’m definitely learning most about that in school.

  10. 4c3d October 29, 2013 at 7:49 am - Reply

    It takes a whole village to raise a teacher!

  11. Me and My PGCE | e=mc2andallthat October 31, 2013 at 12:49 pm - Reply

    […] recent blogs on PGCEs, QTS and initial teacher training led me to reflect on the practicalities of how I became a […]

  12. […] David Didau | The times they are a changin': how can we improve the PGCE? […]

  13. […] Didau, D. (2013, October 27). The times they are a changin': how can we improve the PGCE? In Learning spy. Retrieved December 19, 2014, from […]

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