"For the maths training job here I had a whole-day interview, from 9am until 4pm," recalls Pippa McGlade, 22. "First was a meeting with the head, then a pastoral interview, a departmental interview, an organised lunch, and I had to teach a 25-minute lesson with a small group. Then I had a literacy and numeracy test, and I even had to take an A-level paper."
Her two fellow trainees nod in agreement. "I would say that my School Direct interview was more rigorous than the one for my actual teaching job in September," says Danielle Scott, 23, who studied French and Russian at Bath.
McGlade, Scott and their colleague Gemma Hencher, 33, a scientist, have just completed their teacher training at Balcarras secondary school in Cheltenham, three out of the four trainees recruited last year.
School Direct is the controversial scheme introduced by Michael Gove, the education secretary, as part of his plan to train more teachers in schools. It has come under fire because of fears it cannot train enough teachers and there may be a teacher shortage on the horizon. Worries have also been expressed about whether this sort of training lacks some of the essential grounding offered by a university-based PGCE.
All the women here at Balcarras rate highly the quality of their learning experience as the school's first cohort of School Direct "guinea pigs", and value the way the school embraced them as respected members of staff. They have also secured their first jobs: while Scott is moving to a school in Wiltshire, McGlade and Hencher will start as newly qualified teachers at Balcarras this September.
Why did they choose to train through this scheme rather than opt for the more standard PGCE based in a university?
"The head wrote to me about it during my final year at uni to ask if I'd be interested," says Scott. The same letter landed on McGlade's doormat. Both had been students at Balcarras, and having registered the fact that they were keen on a teaching career, the headteacher, Chris Healy, clearly wasn't going to miss the chance of getting two of his high-achievers back.
Scott jumped at the chance. "I knew I wanted to be a teacher, but I didn't want to do a PGCE after just having done four years of uni. I wanted to work," she explains. "I was looking at the Graduate Training Programme [another training-on-the-job method], but places were much harder to come by. And I was looking at other careers as well. So when the letter came from Balcarras it felt like a sign."
McGlade had already been accepted on to a PGCE course, so had to swap. "I'd wanted to do my training placement at Balcarras but was told I couldn't [by her PGCE provider]," she recalls.
The reduced cost of School Direct can also be an incentive. "Fees are £3,000 cheaper than a PGCE," observes Hencher, who lives locally and heard about the scheme from a teacher she knew. "And we don't have do the big written assignments."
Given lower fees, less onerous written work and the attraction of being able to choose – or at least apply to – the specific schools where they hope to train, it is easy to see why prospective trainees might choose the School Direct route.
A quarter of all training places, 10,000 in all, have been assigned to schools from this September, which has left universities worried about the future of their teacher training courses.
"The School Direct programme allows [the DfE] to marginalise education departments in universities in a way that doesn't involve them doing anything," says the director of Birmingham City University's centre for research in education, Prof Martin Fautley, wryly. "Vice-chancellors are going to have an eye to their Excel spreadsheets, and if numbers don't work, then universities aren't going to be running those courses. In the final analysis, only the research-intensive universities would be able to sustain their departments because they can generate sufficient funds independently. That would take out a whole layer of education research and thought."
But the scheme has hit a snag, with estimates suggesting only 5,000 of the 10,000 places have been filled by schools, and fears of a future teacher shortage.
If Gove is concerned about this, he is not saying so. He recently told the Commons that School Direct had "achieved a dramatic increase in the number of highly qualified graduates entering the profession." According to Dr Jonathan Savage, however, reader in education at Manchester Metropolitan University, "this is clearly untrue. In this academic year, there are only around 500 graduates undertaking School Direct placements – similar to the secondary PGCE course in my university and clearly tiny in relation to the number of teachers the country needs. There is no way of knowing whether from September 2013 there will be a 'dramatic increase' in 'high-quality graduates'. And all the evidence to date is pointing in the opposite direction."
Prof Tim Brighouse, the former schools commissioner for London, has warned of chaos. "The network we had of [initial teacher training] provision was built up very carefully ... in the knowledge that 80% of those who train somewhere get jobs in that locality," he says. "That is now in the process of being deconstructed. You'll probably get gluts in areas you don't need, and shortages in others. School Direct is going to make the supply of teachers more random."
Balcarras illustrates the emerging problem. It was allowed to recruit to 12 positions last year, but actually found just four candidates it wanted to train. This year, it was permitted the same number of possible placements and has to date recruited six, with just two months left.
"The most frustrating thing is that there is no intelligence across the system and we don't know whether these rumours of unfilled places will be borne out," says Geoff Whitty, emeritus professor at the Institute of Education. "There is vagueness about the data."
At St Peter's in Gloucester, which also operates School Direct, the headteacher, Philip Rush, is unimpressed with the Department for Education's reported inability to co-ordinate and record the number of students in the various subject areas who have been accepted on to the scheme. "Time and again decisions [at the DfE] are being made that stem from the heart rather than the head," says Rush. "These decisions affect the education of young people in England; they are not political niceties."
Quality of training is another concern. When asked if they think the School Direct system has given them a better preparation than their PGCE colleagues, Scott, McGlade and Hencher say it depends: "Compared to the PGCE students who were placed at Balcarras, I'd say no. Compared to other PGCE students at some other schools, a lot better," says McGlade.
While there is nothing but enthusiasm for their training from these newly qualified teachers, aspects of their experience precisely illustrate the various concerns about the School Direct scheme.
"We wouldn't send a student on our courses to do a placement at a school they'd attended," says Savage. "Your identity as a teacher is formed by the experiences you have in your training. People come on the course and they're challenged about their own educational experiences. What we don't want is for them to revert back to some model of teaching that worked for them and that they might assume will work for everyone else."
Savage points out that trainee teachers "often make presumptions" about the type of school that would best suit them. With many years' experience of developing new teachers, PGCE tutors have, he says, often found that the most useful schools for developing trainees' skills are those where, for instance, pupils' behaviour isn't perfect, but where they are well supported. Young teachers can find themselves capable of far more than they'd ever imagined, and the stretch required of them makes them far better educationalists.
There's another concern that relates to the quality of teachers School Direct will produce: that hopeful teacher trainees will apply primarily to schools nearby, and therefore pupils will lose out on contact with a more diverse staff from other areas.
This seems to be borne out at Balacarras: the assistant head, Becky Atkin, who is in charge of teacher training in the school, explains that they advertised their School Direct places at universities within 40 miles of Cheltenham, and the head wrote to former students he thought might be interested in applying. As it turned out, three of this year's four trainees have existing links to the school or live in the local area. Next year, with four of the six trainees recruited (out of 50 applicants to date) being career changers, and one a former pupil, the majority almost by definition come from nearby.
It doesn't seem to worry Atkin or Healy. Anyone changing career, they point out, will have plenty of life experience under their belt from which pupils can benefit. And having hosted PGCE students on placement who have been, Atkin says diplomatically, "variable" in quality, a big bonus of School Direct is being able to recruit, select and train people that the senior leadership team believe are the very best.
Healy observes, however, that as the scheme expands, schools' ability to take the close interest in School Direct students' training that Balcarras insists on may not be possible. He wants to keep his intake small, but says, "we know of various schools around the county who are taking 20-30 trainees". This is far more than any individual school can possibly cater for, he says, and means students will have to be farmed out to partner schools: quality assurance on the training they receive will be far more difficult to guarantee when it is done at arm's length.
And another concern emerges: it may be that there is nobody to carry the can if regional or even national shortages of suitably qualified teachers mean that classrooms stand empty in years to come.
According to Brighouse, after the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) and General Teaching Council for England (GTCE) were abolished in 2011, "the duty on the TDA to secure sufficient initial teacher training was repealed and not passed to the secretary of state".
So who, now, has the statutory responsibility to ensure there are enough teachers? "No one," says Brighouse.
The DfE points to a "general duty under the 1996 Education Act to secure the required provision for education in schools". But the spokesperson was unable to demonstrate any wording placing a specific duty on the secretary of state to ensure a sufficient supply of suitably qualified teachers.
Back at Balcarras, in the leafy Charlton King's area of Cheltenham, three keen and highly motivated School Direct graduates are looking forward to the start of their new careers. Do you think a school is well set-up to train teachers? I ask them. "I think this school is," says McGlade. "But not necessarily all schools."
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