Great teachers: attracting, training and retaining the best - Education Committee Contents

Annex 5: Note of the Committee's visit to York, 5 March 2012

This note offers a record of a day spent in York by five members of the Education Committee, as part of its inquiry into teacher recruitment, training and retention. The objective of the visit was to gather further evidence for the inquiry from those at the front line—pupils, teachers, trainees and training providers.

As part of the day, the Committee took formal oral evidence from four York headteachers and three Yorkshire teacher training providers. A transcript can be found in Volume II of the Committee's report, along with those for other oral evidence sessions.

Members in attendance: Graham Stuart MP (Chair); Pat Glass MP; Damian Hinds MP; Ian Mearns MP; Craig Whittaker MP


The Committee began its day in York with a visit to Millthorpe School, an 11-16 Specialist Language College with around 1,000 students. The Committee was hosted by headteacher Trevor Burton and students from Year 9.

Committee members participated in a roundtable discussion with six teaching staff, including an assistant headteacher, covering a range of topics across the inquiry's scope. Much of the discussion focussed on professional development opportunities for the teaching profession. It was argued that external CPD courses had 'had their time', not least due to budgetary constraints, and that although they could add value, CPD run within school, or between schools, was often of more value, partly because it was easier for teachers to keep in touch once the course had ended. Other teachers argued that CPD now called for a more creative approach than had been the case in the past.

Teachers said that CPD often had no sense of structure, which was an advantage of a Masters course or a strategy for professional development. There was, however, little appetite for lengthening the school year in order to allow for a 'CPD entitlement'; teachers noted that much CPD is already undertaken in their free time, such as the necessary background work inherent in a change of syllabus or curriculum. It was noted that newly qualified teachers often raise behaviour management as a key issue for CPD, suggesting it was dealt with too little in some ITT programmes.

Half the teachers present had planned to join the profession from a young age but, despite unanimous love of the job, most had reservations about recommending the profession to students today, arguing that it is harder work than often perceived; one teacher said it was vital that trainees entered the profession with "eyes open". One teacher, formerly in the retail sector, said that the security of the profession was more appreciated because of her prior experience. Colleagues therefore argued that providing 'tastes' of the teaching profession, for example with sixth-form or college students, could be valuable, and that there should be more opportunities to sample teaching before committing.

There was some concern about Government proposals to move the responsibility for ITT away from universities; one teacher noted that you need theory to back up practical training. However, it was agreed that ITT should not be about improving subject knowledge but teaching practice. Another teacher, who had trained via the GTP after thirteen years as a teaching assistant, argued that it was a very valuable programme for career changers, but suspected it might work less well for younger trainees without experience in schools. There was also a view that degree class or university background was a "red herring" and that teaching was "about the person" rather than the academic credentials; however, it was also agreed that good subject knowledge was important at secondary level. It was suggested by one teacher that PGCEs were too intense and could be extended to two years, at least for some trainees.

On pay, a colleague noted that it had "increased dramatically" over time, and was "not an issue" now. Suggestions of a formal career structure for teachers, such as that operated in Singapore, met with strong support; one teacher said that the "structure has gone" from the profession.

When asked what one thing the Committee should recommend to improve the quality of teachers entering the profession, and their subsequent training and retention, a variety of views were expressed. One colleague argued that the current 'quota' system incentivises training providers to fill their courses, regardless of candidates' quality, and that this meant too many weak teachers were entering the profession. Another argued for the development of programmes such as the 'Advanced Skills Teacher'; a third for a proper entitlement to CPD for teachers. A fourth colleague said that the priority had to be to stop criticising the teaching profession and to raise its public status.

Following the roundtable with teachers, the Committee met a number of Year 9 students at the school, to hear their views on what constitutes a good teacher. The pupils agreed that a sense of humour was important, as was an ability to talk to and relate to young people, including around areas not directly related to lessons. There was similar agreement on some key qualities of poor teachers: those who use Powerpoint presentations too much (which students said should be banned), who ask students to work "in silence" all the time, and who have poor behaviour management skills.

Teachers, it was argued, needed to be patient and to have strong "knowledge around the subject": it was agreed that clever teachers were generally better, although it could mean they didn't understand why a student might be struggling with a particular concept, as were those who explained logic rather than recited facts. Students said that mixed ability groups were harder for teachers.

Primary teachers, it was felt, needed some of the same qualities as those in secondary schools, but had to be more "bouncy" and "enthusiastic", and to have even greater tolerance and patience. There was a view that primary teaching was both harder - because all subjects had to be covered by one teacher—and very important —because "it you hate primary, you hate secondary".

A teacher's age was not seen to be a factor in quality, although there was a suggestion that some older teachers could benefit from retraining or development around running energetic classes with exciting teaching methods. Student teachers were seen as variable, and sometimes tried too hard to be "original". Some of the pupils themselves had considered a career in teaching.


Two students from Millthorpe School escorted the Committee to nearby Scarcroft Primary School, an Ofsted 'outstanding' school with over 300 pupils on the roll. The Committee was hosted by headteacher Anna Cornhill, and—as at Millthorpe—held two discussion groups, one with teachers and the other with Year 5 and 6 pupils.

The discussion with staff covered similar themes to that at Millthorpe, with a strong view expressed that teachers had to better heralded in public, and that positive stories on teaching should be reported and marketed. Teachers, it was felt, had to put up with a "cram-packed timetable", as well as "lots of paperwork" to prove what they were doing: a headteacher's word, it was felt, "doesn't count" in Ofsted's eyes. Accountability systems, particularly with regard to pupils speaking English as an additional language, were seen as unrealistic.

However, accountability and inspection were both seen as very important: the balance to be achieved, teachers argued, was in allowing staff more professionalism at the same time. Inspection, colleagues argued, should be more a validation of self-assessment, and should try to follow the same framework for a longer period of time than has been the case until now. School Improvement Partners were seen as a valuable aspect of the system; teachers were, they said, happy to be held accountable by them because they were ex- or current professionals. Another level of accountability, additional to those already existing, was not seen as helpful or necessary.

There was some appetite for better career paths for teachers; it was also suggested that some teachers, nowadays, were choosing not to become leaders as it was seen as a very demanding pathway. Thresholds were described by one teacher as a "waste of time"; making the NPQH optional was seen as "devaluing" a head's role. On CPD, teachers noted that this already took place in their 'free time' rather than contracted time at school. A particular lack of training for middle managers was noted.

Scarcroft pupils had strong views on what constituted a good teacher: being fun and happy were key criteria. Like their counterparts at Millthorpe, they agreed that secondary teacher was easier because you only had to know one subject in detail. There was some suggestion that pupils' favourite subjects were influenced by teachers' own skill, but a general view that Scarcroft teachers were qualified in all subject areas anyway!


The Committee was delighted to be hosted for lunch at York St John University, where Members met fifteen trainee teachers, five from each of York St John, the University of York and Leeds Trinity University College. After an initial roundtable, small discussion groups were held with a few trainees and one or two MPs in each.

The number of 'drop-outs' from teacher training was raised: people could "react differently" to courses, a trainee said, particularly to the placements which could 'make or break' the training experience. Not all students felt there were ample opportunities to feed back on placements; others argued for better training of mentors (which was seen as a necessity). However, the drop-out rate was seen in part as evidence of courses' rigour as well.

The best training was seen as offering a balance between theoretical and practical content. Training around child development was offered by one trainee as an example of an area which required a strong theoretical background supported by practical experience. Many aspects of lecture-based training were seen as both good and important, including that on safeguarding. Some concerns were expressed around a potential increase in school-led training (though school-based training was seen as vital), not least because a school provider, by dint of size, could struggle to offer the sense of camaraderie and network which HEI-led partnerships developed between trainees. The independence of HEI-led partnerships was also seen as valuable, because of their ability to offer a range of placements and prepare candidates for various types of school. Government plans for system reform could, one trainee argued, mean NQTs were prepared only for teaching in one school, where they were unlikely to spend a whole career; proposals could also mean less consistency across the system.

Teaching was seen as a complex set of skills, and this view meant considerable support for the Government's proposed pre-training interpersonal skills test, but less support for a rigid approach to bursaries based purely on degree class. Schools, trainees felt, were centres of a community, and should therefore appoint teachers who could interact with parents and other adults as well as children and young people.

Trainees considered that it was important that applicants had experience with children before applying for ITT, in order to demonstrate aptitude and commitment. Extending this to interaction with children as part of the application process was also supported. The trainees suggested that the key attributes which made a good teacher were enthusiasm, confidence, adaptability, a passion for the subject, and a desire to impart knowledge.


Following the afternoon oral evidence session, where the Committee heard from four headteachers and three teacher training providers, a reception was held with a small number of outstanding teachers from a variety of Yorkshire schools. A range of themes across the inquiry were informally discussed.

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