I embarked on my PGCE course in Primary Education full of hope, eager to step into a classroom to teach. I had chosen my institution carefully and I was delighted to be accepted onto a course at one of London’s most prestigious institutions.
Once the course was underway I was surprised by how little emphasis was placed on actual subject content: short of a few exercises in science, arithmetic and basic English, there was little else to ensure that prospective teachers could actually transmit a body of knowledge. The main emphasis of the course was to assimilate the tenets of progressive theory that have been the intellectual backbone of the teaching profession since the 1960s.
While this is an important aspect of becoming a teacher – heaven forbid that teachers should be ignorant of pedagogic theory – it seemed more important to master a new pseudo-scientific lexicon than to get to grips with what I must actually teach to children. It is commendable that teacher training has undergone changes to increase professionalism and accountability. Unfortunately, this seems to be at the expense of a multiplicity of voices within the profession: those who do not agree with the prevailing discourse find themselves marginalised, often seeking employment in the independent sector or abandoning teaching altogether.
Having benefited from the pedagogic approaches of independent education, I was interested to see how such approaches could be used in the state sector to improve pupil progress. Sadly, my own traditional, academic background was seen as both ‘elitist’ and ‘reactionary’ – the assumption being that traditional methods were far too boring for children and that we should ‘enlighten’ ourselves with the newer approaches to teaching.
I was meant to be a facilitator for children, providing them with a rich learning environment in which they would, as if by osmosis, absorb the contents of the syllabus. I must move away from the outdated notion of a teacher standing at the front of a class to tell children things. Instead, I should ask them for the answers. I am not criticising the Socratic method of teaching. I am, however, questioning the validity of allowing a class of 9-year-olds, with far less knowledge than me, to set the agenda of the class.
On a positive note, I learned a few techniques for classroom management – but this was during my teaching placement, observing a very experienced teacher. Indeed, the most rewarding parts of my teacher training were the periods of on-the-job training during my school placements. However, my time at my placement school was an an eye-opening and dispiriting one. I was shocked by several observations in the classroom.
Trainee teachers are told that they should divide classes into groups rather than use whole class teaching. This can result in classroom chaos as children sit in clusters facing each other rather than facing the teacher. My school mentor, having had years of experience, laid out her desks in rows for certain subjects such as English, but I was told that I had to have my desks arranged in groups so that I could demonstrate my group-teaching skills to my college tutor when being observed. There was a tacit understanding that, although more traditional approaches may be more effective, ideological dogma prevents such approaches from being used. This is clearly damaging for pupils.
I spent an inordinate amount of time preparing ‘differentiated lessons’ – essentially, different work for different groups of children of high, average and low ability for every single lesson. However, this tended to lead to fractured sessions in which attention became most focused on the average to least able.
The idea that work should be challenging and intellectually demanding was alien. Tragically, the brightest students suffered most of all. They were not stretched and were, instead, meant to act as ‘assistants’, imparting their knowledge to weaker pupils and in turn ‘benefiting’ from the perspectives of others. What actually happened was that these bright and enthusiastic children did all the work, but not for their own intellectual development.
I was also shocked by how little emphasis there was on diagnostic marking and on writing relevant comments on children’s work. The use of red ink, in particular, was frowned upon, even though it made it far easier for children to see and read comments and marks. In particular, we were dissuaded from pointing out errors in a child’s work since it was seen as discouraging.
A culture of mediocrity was pervasive – and it started in the staffroom! In my experience of four primary schools before becoming a teacher myself, I was the only Oxbridge graduate, either as a trainee teacher or as a teacher. I was treated with disdain and suspicion. The hostility and inverse snobbery towards me was one of my most enduring memories of teacher training. If teachers are unable to applaud the accomplishments of their colleagues, what hope is there for their pupils? Why should top graduates be discouraged from teaching the younger age group?
Another abiding impression of my teacher training was that of being encouraged, even required, to be too permissive of pupils’ transgressions. I was left asking myself why we wring our hands at the production of so many ‘feral’ teenagers who lack the basic skills to progress in life when schools are, so often, causing the problem rather than solving it.
I seemed ‘off message’ among fellow trainee teachers in holding with the traditional idea that rigour and discipline must be introduced at a young age, else the skills required to succeed, such as tenacity and concentration, are too difficult to attain later on.
Too often, teacher trainers appeared to see trainees, like myself, as conduits for an ideology that mistakenly supposes the classroom is a vehicle for remedying all the ills of society.
Priya Dutta is Secretary of the Campaign for Real Education and used to be a full-time teacher and Deputy Head of an independent school in north London before setting up her own consultancy this year.