The current government policy on teacher training is flawed, says Keith Taber

Keith S Taber

Keith S Taber

For many years the main route into secondary chemistry teaching in England has been the postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE), where graduates in chemistry, or cognate subjects, undertake a one year, full-time, course, which prepares them to teach secondary science with a specialism in chemistry. And there are good reasons for this approach.

PGCE courses are offered by universities in partnership with schools and provide students with theoretical and critical perspectives of teaching and learning, as well as practical guidance and extensive opportunities to observe professional teachers working with different classes. Crucially, these courses offer a structured induction into working as a teacher. Typically, the student-teacher moves from observing, to assisting a teacher, to co-teaching, to leading teaching, to being the sole (but closely monitored) teacher of the class. This change occurs at a pace that reflects the student-teacher’s progress and readiness, and may vary across the classes the student works with. Specifically trained school-based mentors support the student-teachers by monitoring their progress and providing feedback, guidance and advice on, for example, how to negotiate workloads and challenges.

Students spend the equivalent of a term in university and two terms in school, but scheduled so there is plenty of opportunity to move back and forth between learning about principles and theory, and applying this knowledge to their own teaching. Importantly, they have time to reflect on their own practice with their peer group of student chemistry teachers who will be working across a range of schools. The student-teachers also learn the basic skills of classroom research that are needed to solve problems and effectively implement innovations from tutors who are active researchers.1

Role models

The curriculum and its assessment, policy priorities, institutional structures, educational technology and teaching resources are all in constant flux in English schools. Teachers and university tutors have specific roles in helping student-teachers to cope with the inevitable pressures such changes bring.

The teachers working alongside the student-teachers in the schools provide guidance on such matters as the specific schemes of work, assessment specifications and available apparatus in the partner schools. They are expert practitioners with local knowledge of how to do the job well with their pupils, in their classroom and in their school.

The university tutors will have successful background experience as specialist classroom teachers and can provide a grounding in the fundamentals of classroom chemistry teaching, which does not significantly change with time. As active researchers and scholars, they can help student-teachers develop critical and principled frameworks for making sense of their classroom experiences in terms of what is known about teaching and learning, and subject-specific pedagogy.

Both sides of the partnership bring essential contributions to the education of the new teacher. 

So why change?

In the past few years the UK government has developed a policy to move initial teacher education away from university–school partnerships to give schools primary responsibility. The motivation for this policy appears to me to be ideological – to reduce the influence of academics on the education agenda.2 The government’s rationalisation is that teaching is a craft, and so it is best learnt from current teachers. While this approach recognises an essential aspect of effective preparation for teaching, it fails to acknowledge that academic perspectives, theory and systematic research are of value to classroom teachers.

New teachers deserve to be supported by experts in teacher education as well as by classroom practitioners

The policy assumes that the best people to train teachers are teachers simply because they are teachers. However, ironically, this attitude actually undermines the expertise of teachers. The same logic would say that children should be taught chemistry by any chemist (rather than chemists who have specialised in teaching), mathematics by mathematicians, history by historians and French by native French speakers regardless of their aptitude for teaching. Just as school children deserve to be taught chemistry by chemists who have learnt how to teach the subject, so new teachers deserve to be supported by experts in teacher education as well as by classroom practitioners.

I believe that this current policy is misguided and especially dangerous in a subject such as chemistry, where there are some secondary schools with no specialist chemistry teachers on the staff. The latter was a result of many years of another damaging ideologically-driven policy that excluded chemistry as a named subject in schools for 11–16 year olds.3 New, unqualified teachers learning to be chemistry specialists in such schools will not have had substantive subject-specific teaching support from within their institutions. Yet, in time, these specialists will be assumed to be able to train new chemistry teachers simply because they are doing that job. The quality of student learning in chemistry will inevitably suffer.

The rate of implementation of this intended policy shift has been impeded by the reluctance of many schools to take on lead responsibility for initial teacher education. Currently, the PGCE remains an option for those wanting to become chemistry teachers. So there is still time for the UK government to recognise that the best way to develop much needed professional, specialist teachers in chemistry is through a route that acknowledges the role of practice and scholarship.

Keith S Taber is reader in science education at the University of Cambridge, UK