Monday, 31 December 2012

Cathartic Non-Constructive Crankiness

My hand is broken. My fourth and fifth metacarpal have been snapped and dislocated, leaving me one-handed over Christmas. I can barely type, cannot write and struggle to wipe. On the plus side, I'm not allowed to wash up. Hopefully the metalwork holding my paw together will be removed in mid-January and I can begin functioning like a proper human being again.

My busted hand has not been my only frustration recently. I am seething with rage at just how useless my university has been during my PGCE. My anger at this educational institution grows daily and any success I have achieved so far has been in spite of them, not because of them.

The course has, thus far, been divided into the following components: a two week placement in a primary school; a series of 'theory' lectures on Monday mornings; subject specific lectures, workshops and tutorials on Fridays; a placement in a secondary school. All of these elements must be documented and uploaded onto an online tool which logs our work and progress. Seems reasonable, eh?

The primary placement was perfectly fine. I arranged it myself, picked a lovely local school and enjoyed acting as a TA to a Y6 class. I'm not entirely sure what the point was - we were told it was to give us an idea what pupils were capable of when they joined secondary schools as Y7s - but given that these adorable rugrats were a full year younger than Y7 pupils at a time of huge growth and development, i'm not sure there was much value in this.

Lectures have been even less useful. Sold to us as 'a series of provocations' designed to encourage our own thoughts and studies, these have been nothing short of appalling. It seems the only qualification to present these lectures is that you must be a former student of the course who enjoys drinking with the course leader. I'm not actually sure what the majority of these lectures were for. Some were so woeful that, despite attending and taking notes, I hadn't realised the topic had been covered. When it dawned on me that I had to write a 6000 word essay on AfL I complained that this subject hadn't been covered. It had. I rest my case.

Subject specific sessions have been little better. The course leader has apparently been trotting out the same sessions for years, is a patronising twerp and makes some of the most absurd and unreasonable demands you could imagine. He clearly has no sense of decency whatsoever - confirmation of which arrived at around 3pm on December 21st. While everyone else in the world of education packed up and pissed off to the pub, this man was emailing the PGCE English cohort asking them to write a short SoW based on two stories from the Sunlight on Grass anthology. These are to be presented in the first session back after New Year. The timing sucked and, at the end of a long and demanding term, this put people's backs up. Worse still, getting hold of said anthology (not commercially available) or the stories it contains (impossible to find online) during the holidays is like plaiting fog.

Much of this section of the course has involved micro-teaching. Usually, this involves a group of twentysomethings acting like petulant children in an immature attempt to replicate the behaviour of a 'typical' class of children whilst being 'taught' by other group members. It is bullshit of the highest order.

Thankfully, the tutors in these sessions are thoroughly lovely and charming: old-fashioned teachers from the old school. Unfortunately, this causes misunderstandings and leads to mixed messages. While they are happy to trust our judgements and abilities, their laissez-faire attititude to documentation and 'Offsod box-ticking' leads to confusion and panic - not least when compared to the course leader's anal approach (this may or may not be a euphemism).

The key to this confusion lies in the very software designed to combat grey areas. This piece of software (which shall henceforth be known as The Twat) is meant to keep an electronic copy of all our documentation and evidence. Each file uploaded can be linked  to the Teaching Standards, thus creating a wonderful and convenient compendium of evidence which can be accessed by anyone who needs to, whenever they need it. Hallelujah.

In practice, The Twat is an absolute twat. It's like comparing the internet to Ceefax - badly designed, cumbersome, confusing and (already) embarrassingly outdated. Rather than saving time, it creates far more additional work. Written observations must be scanned and uploaded, every single resource and lesson plan must be uploaded (one at a time), items cannot be dragged/dropped like you'd expect, many documents must be uploaded twice (once in one folder, then again as evidence against the standards), every lesson must be evaluated and a reflective journal produced (in which you repeat work by replicating your evaluations), ad infinitum.

As well as creating absurd amounts of admin and being enormously time consuming, this piece-of-shit software is managed inconsistently. Messages are sent from the various disparate departments of the university updating instructions on its use (the record is eight contradictory emails in less than an hour) meaning that school-based mentors, university tutors, course leaders and office staff cannot agree on a uniform approach to The Twat's use - what the blue-blazes are us poor students supposed to think? I don't know anyone on the course who wouldn't prefer having a folder filled with evidence which could be presented as required. What luddites we are.

Luckily, I spent two years working as a Teaching Assistant in an English department prior to my PGCE. As such, I had hundreds of hours of practical experience, had taught plenty of lessons and had a bank of useful knowledge ready and waiting to be used on my first placement. I hit the ground running, made 'outstanding progress' and have been offered (and have accepted) a job. Bully for me. But many of those without my experience have struggled, with four falling by the wayside already. This infuriates me.

There has been much talk of 'setting pupils up to succeed'. Unfortunately, these words do not seem to apply to PGCE students. We are encouraged to make success as easy to achieve as possible for our young charges. The same words feel empty when applied to us. The way our course is structured means it's perfectly possible to teach English having only ever seen around ten lessons of that subject taught. How can that be acceptable?

There are PGCE students in my school who are fresh from university. They have no school experience. They don't know what activities work in the classroom. They don't know how much can be squeezed into an hour. They don't know how to assess formatively. They don't know how to plan for progress. They haven't been taught these skills. They haven't seen these things done. And it's not their fault.

My university has taught me nothing. And have charged me £9000 for the privilege. Despite telling me they'd make life as easy as possible for me, my second placement school will see me spend three hours a day travelling. And then at least an hour fiddling around with admin. What I want to do is plan brilliant lessons and teach them. But when will I find the time?


  1. What a good account! Unsurprisingly, I am very sad to hear of your woes and, worryingly, we all know that you are not alone in this predicament.

    As a head of English myself, may I offer you one piece of advice: make sure that your lessons are out of this world. The rest will follow suit.Spend as little time as possible doing the things that, in your judgement, are not worth the bother.

    In the words of Bon Jovi: Keep the faith!

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  3. Haha. I once had lecture from my PGCE course leader on how to engage a class. He explicitly and repeatedly told us never to show a Powerpoint and simply read it aloud and certainly not to replicate your slides in notes. As you may have already imagined, this is EXACTLY what he did. For a full HOUR. In glorious black and white. It was the least engaging lecture I have ever had the misfortune to attend. The irony was so painfully glaring that it felt like an episode of The Office.

    One of my regular lecturers attended less than 20% of our sessions but that was OK because his personal life was 'fucked up'. I kid you not. Best £9000 I ever spent...! Having read this though, I am thankful that I just crept in on the right side of the techno-everything approach.

    With some exceptions to the rule, the people who will teach you to teach are teachers, not university lecturers. Hang around a few brilliant ones for a while and your faith in humanity will be restored!

    Ooh, nearly forgot - when I questioned the competence of one of my course leaders after a spectacularly useless session on 'interview technique', I was publicly accused of being 'a bit of a dickhead' who would 'struggle to get a job'. I interviewed for my first job a week later and guess what...

  4. If only those who educated the educators followed their own advice...

    I'm sure there are good PGCE courses out there, but i've yet to meet anyone with positive things to say about their own. I'm practically self-taught through my own reading and previous experience. Rather than being smug about this, however, it infuriates me that students are being charged extortionate fees for ordinary teaching.

    As someone more eloquent than me once said, "Never was so much paid by so many for so little."

  5. Oh dear. And I have PGCE English interview pending....,

  6. I'm 56 and started my PGCE in Chemistry in September. Failed my first assignment. Failed my first school placement (SP1). After my first lesson teaching biology - "the kids learnt NOTHING", according to my mentor - my teaching was "too teacher led and not enough student led". That concept was never discussed at the 6 weeks at University prior to the first school. But since January I've heard several other PGCE students cite similar stories about their school mentors. My PGCE course had only given us PGCE students 10 minutes teaching in front of a class prior to going to my first school. Lesson plans take hours and hours to write (my SP1 mentor insisted on minute by minute lesson plans). I could go on. Have now been excluded from the rest of the PGCE course. I'm now Appealing about this decision through the University Appeals process.

  7. The English PGCE at the University of Sheffield was genuinely outstanding. Thought-provoking, collaborative and a neat balance of theory and practice. When DfE tried to shut it down, over a thousand people signed a petition. Just offering a little balance.

  8. David,

    I'm absolutely for PGCE courses and have serious concerns over what the future of initial teacher training might entail. I only wish i'd gone to Sheffield rather than attending the university i went to. There will be nobody signing a petition for them.