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Initial teacher training and the transition to teaching in urban schools

David Hall*, Andy Ash and Carlo Raffo

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Manchester, 16-18 September 2004

This paper is based upon ongoing research with a group of teachers at the beginning of their careers in the teaching profession. The research has been conducted in two conurbations, London and Manchester, and has focused upon the experiences of trainee teachers learning to teach in urban contexts. The research has sought to examine how such trainees make the transition to urban schools in general and, more specifically, those schools that face a diversity of disadvantage.

The research was initially triggered by local and national data about teacher shortages in particular locations, most especially inner London but also parts of Greater Manchester and other urban areas, and, at the outset of the research, anecdotal evidence from within our own institutions (both of which are involved in the initial training of teachers) of relatively small numbers of trainee teachers seeking and then moving to their first teaching posts in schools where attainment levels were relatively low and which were located in relatively socio-economically disadvantaged areas of the conurbations within which we worked. Based upon this emerging concern (all of the researchers involved in the project had either attended or been teachers in relatively low attaining educational institutions located in socio-economically disadvantaged areas) was a desire to investigate the actions, behaviours and experiences of trainees working within this context.

By focusing upon the urban the work seeks to explore the concept of space within the context of trainee teachers and their work. This includes, in this particular instance trainee teachers moving to particular schools in particular locations, training as teachers in particular cities and their hinterlands and making sense of particular localities and, sometimes, their communities. Rapid shifts in the global economy and a general move towards a post-industrial capitalism associated with high and rapid levels of capital movements have, it is argued (Lash and Urry, 1994) combined to create a highly mobile labour force increasingly unattached to particular spaces or locations and replacing a labour force recognisably ‘local’ with personal histories strongly associated with particular locations. At its most extreme this might involve individuals and their family or other groups moving between countries with identities and attachments linked to mobile communities rather than fixed places. Perhaps more relevantly within the context of research into trainee teachers and their subsequent spatial movements, this might involve high levels of actual or anticipated geographical mobility associated with movements between schools as places of employment. In any such new work context teachers will be required to adapt to these spatial changes in terms of their working world, community, identity and social life in the particular local contexts in which they find themselves. The significance or otherwise of the local in such circumstances is of particular importance in this respect as demonstrated by Taylor et al (1996) in their study of Manchester and Sheffield. In the context of our research the extent to which local or localised features inform the working lives of teachers and trainee teachers is of particular importance.

The broader context for our work is the concept of urban and, more specifically, urban education. Urban education is through the history and development of urban areas and the subsequent legacy of socio-economic disadvantage in such areas inextricably linked to continued low levels of aggregate pupil attainment in a relatively high proportion of urban secondary schools. The use of the term urban education has become synonymous with such educational disadvantage although it is not always clear in literature related to this (Maguire and Dillon, 1997) what the specifically urban dimensions of these problems are as opposed to, for example, the educational dimensions of socio-economic disadvantage in less obviously urban or rural contexts. In the UK and England, in particular, with generally high levels of population density the question therefore does arise about the extent to which the term urban continues to be of use where contextual commonalities between areas broadly described as urban are often insufficient in terms of the existence of broadly common variables. It may be that the term metropolitan to describe the more central zones of our larger urban areas (conurbations) is more appropriate. A related feature is the geographical, spatial and demographic dimensions of the term urban, in particular, the extent to which smaller towns and cities and peripheral districts of conurbations can usefully be described as urban. Where notions of urban or metropolitan do tend to converge is around relatively rapid shifts in populations and, in some cases, multicultural or multi ethnic communities, densities of populations surrounded by other densely populated areas mainly concentrated in the conurbations and concentrations of socio-economic disadvantage. Given that the research is not intended primarily as a contribution to the ample literature base on the concept of urban, the research consequently seeks to focus upon those urban areas and the schools contained within and serving them with characteristics that match more convergent notions of the urban or metropolitan. These include inner cities and areas with marked socio-economic disadvantage accompanied by one or more of the following features; high concentrations of social housing, high relative population densities and ethnic diversity.

The educational literature relating to the theme of urban education is predominantly North American in origin and largely specific to a US context. In common with much UK literature on urban education there is a lack of clarity as to what exactly the term urban refers to and it is commonly used as an assumed term rather than one that is explicitly stated and defined. It is consequently difficult to ascertain the commonalities of context between these different literatures. Nevertheless the US literature on the preparation of teachers for teaching in city schools offers a number of insights that may be helpful in illuminating the UK or English context. Much of the literature takes as its central concern disparities between the school populations of US cities and the teachers preparing to teach in them. In essence the demographics are that urban schools are increasingly being populated by black and hispanic students, yet the teachers being prepared to teach in those same schools tend to be white and suburban; a situation exacerbated by increasing social and housing segregation so that many training teachers’ first meaningful experiences of contact with black and Hispanic young people is on their teacher education programmes (Olmedo, 1997). Research conducted on the preferences of pre-service teachers suggests that few wish to teach in settings that are different from those with which they are familiar (Gilbert, 1995). A consequence is that a number of programmes have been developed with the aim of improving the preparation of suburbanite pre-service teachers for teaching in US cities (Sobel and French, 1998; Burant and Kirby, 2002). Literature written in the US to help prepare pre-service and serving teachers to cope with the demands of urban classrooms reflects this context. The scale of the problem can be inferred from literature aimed white, suburban teachers preparing to teach in urban areas. Weiner (1999), for example, in seeking to convey to how cultural variations may influence language and behaviour draws attention to the Puritan origins of the common terms ‘bathroom’ and ‘restroom’ as opposed to the French usage of ‘toilette’ and ‘WC’.

Two distinct themes emerging from this body of literature about the preparation of US teachers for urban contexts are the distance between the pre-service teachers and the young people and communities they will be working with and the need to further develop aspects of pre-service teacher programmes to impact upon this.

The UK based literature specifically addressing the preparation of teaching for working in urban schools is significantly sparser although addressing longstanding themes. Kay-Shuttleworth writing in 1862 and quoted in Cook, C (1984) wrote about the training he had organised for teachers working with the urban poor and described subsequently by Grace (1978) as:

Social and cultural missionaries – a kind of secular priesthood dedicated to the work of civilization. (Grace, 1978, p11)

Similarly Anderson (1975) made the case for specific programmes of training geared up to the needs of urban communities. More latterly, Riddell (1999) proposes the need to develop a specifically urban pedagogy emphasising familiar concepts such as inclusion, reflection and appropriate expectations of pupils and proposing extended teaching roles for community members and the creation of teacher champions for urban pedagogy. Such attempts to articulate an urban pedagogy in the literature are not specifically linked to an evidence base about urban schooling and it seems reasonable to assume that they reflect the relatively low level of development of this concept in a UK context. The US literature on teacher training is perhaps most directly echoed in Batteson and Sixsmith’s (1995) description of how one higher education institution located in primarily rural settings offers urban experience to help trainee teachers break through stereotypes of class, gender and race and offer countervailing experiences to

government images of urban schools as folk-devil incarnations and objects of derision (Batteson and Sixsmith, 1995, p232)

In terms of the practice of initial teacher training in England the Teacher Training Agency’s (TTA) Professional Standards for Qualified Teacher Status make no specific reference to urban, or indeed any other, geographical contexts in which trainee teachers might find themselves working. This can be viewed in various ways from reflecting an increasing emphasis upon the technical aspects of teaching to equipping new teachers with skills that will best enable them to engage with the demands of classrooms through to a wilful ignorance of the social justice dimensions of teaching (Mahony and Hextall, 1997). Whilst there is some evidence of the pressures faced by urban schools preventing them from engaging in initial teacher training (Menter, 1998) not least through the application of Special Measures imposed by OFSTED, effectively excluding schools from substantial direct participation in ITT, a high proportion of trainee teachers do continue to be trained in urban schools. This may be in no small part related to the concentration in urban areas of higher education institutions offering ITT provision.

Although over the last decade there have been a variety of policy initiatives and reforms, including Excellence in Cities, Education Action Zones and the Schools Facing Challenging Circumstances programme, all with the ostensible intention of raising levels of attainment in urban schools, the problems remain. OFSTED (2000) point to the low proportion of schools with high levels of disadvantage that achieve results that are at or above the national average. They highlight the diversity of disadvantage that they face whilst simultaneously pointing to common features:

a preponderance of families on low income, in poor housing and with little experience of education beyond compulsory schooling. Only a small minority of parents work in the professions: many are in low paid manual or service jobs or unemployed. In some cases families are exceptionally troubled. The communities are affected, to different degrees, by bleak surroundings and poor facilities, by poor health, by dislocation and disaffection, and by high levels of alcohol and drug abuse. (OFSTED, 2000, page 10)

Three years after the OFSTED report on ‘Improving City Schools’ David Bell (2003) points to ‘slow and unsteady’ improvements in urban schools and ‘almost intractable’ problems with improvements in some schools being associated with declining standards of performance in others.

OFSTED’s role in relation to city schools need not be constructed as neutral. There are concerns that OFSTED’s focus upon standard measures of attainment and a narrow curriculum geared up to the needs of more advantaged young people may work against many urban schools. In addition, a ‘big brother’ approach to school accountability allied to ‘naming and shaming’ (Fink, 1999) may within the context of marketised education system exacerbate the problems faced by urban schools.

The marketisation of education itself through the creation of educational quasi-markets and the corresponding emergence of powerful symbolic tools such as school league tables based upon pupil attainment can also be viewed variously as contributing to, creating the conditions for and being intimately associated with the difficulties faced by many urban schools. The interaction of these policy changes with social class inequalities and the relational nature of such inequalities especially marked in an English context (Goldthorpe, 1996) can be also be seen as combining to create circumstances in which many urban schools struggle to succeed. In particular, the effects of the creation of ‘choice’ for parents has enabled middle class parents to engage in a range of strategies and behaviours (Ball, 2003) which can result in their withdrawal from some schools and even whole areas of our cities (Whitty et al 1998, Thrupp 1999). Another outcome of this process has been the reinforcement and creation of ‘pecking orders’ of schools; a marked feature of the urban context and, for schools at or near the bottom of the ‘pecking order’, one which can reinforce the relatively low attainment levels of some schools and impede attainment levels (Woods and Levacic, 2002).

Against this picture of structural difficulties associated with policy frameworks and the demographics of urban areas that combine the tone of OFSTED reports and speeches on urban schools remains defiantly upbeat:

The picture, of course, is not of unrelieved gloom. In virtually all the areas visited there are signs of community strength and of action to improve the situation (OFSTED, 2000, p10)

It is important to stress that, for schools that find it difficult to improve, there are some that can cope and are doing well. And some schools are doing extremely well. Compared to schools nationally, inspection shows that the higher-attaining disadvantaged schools are better led and managed and more effective. (Bell, 2003)

However, for teachers working in the disadvantaged schools that are the object of discussions regarding achievement and attainment levels it is clear that particular challenges are faced. OFSTED (2003) acknowledge that they are ‘hard places to teach in’ and, given the circumstances, it is of no surprise that Maguire and Dillon (1997) pose the question ‘who will want to teach in them?’ or put another way ‘who can be enticed to teach in them’. It is the intention of the research to offer evidence that may cast some light upon these questions. Currently, various possible responses to these questions can be detected in the existing literature. Maguire (2001) based upon research with experienced and long stay inner-city teachers identifies a minority who remain in such schools on account of their classed identities. Such teachers recognised an affinity with the students and children they were teaching, were often aware of the class based dimensions of such affinities and some of them articulated and engaged in political action seeking to challenge the structures of urban schooling. However, as ‘Phil’ one of the teachers included in this study noted it is not clear that the declining ranks of, at the very least, this latter group of teachers are being refreshed by new entrants to the teaching profession. Another contrasting response (Hargreaves, 2003) has been to seek to attract members of the creative class (Florida, 2002) identified as individuals with high levels of human capital, trying out radical solutions, testing and refining new techniques and exercising a great deal of judgement. Hargreaves (2003) views both the Fast Track and Teach First schemes as the embodiment of such attempts to enrich the ranks of the profession and recruit and retain such a creative class. The emergence of Chartered Teacher Schemes in both London and Manchester seeking to create a collective identity for urban teachers in those two contexts can be viewed as having some links to such notions of attracting and retaining members of the creative class in urban schools.

Research methods

The research was conducted with trainee teachers on full time Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) courses in Manchester and London. 120 trainee teachers were initially surveyed at the outset of their PGCE year regarding a range of issues including the types of schools they would like to work in, their own schooling and their personal histories in relation to their previous places of residence (Ash, Hall and Raffo, 2004). A further survey was issued to the same group close to the completion of their PGCE year and seeking to ascertain, amongst other things, whether or not their views on schools they wished to work in had changed. From the initial survey data a group of ten trainee teachers were selected for further research. The ten were selected according to one or more of a range of criteria including the involvement of trainee teachers studying in both London and Manchester, the inclusion of trainees indicating an intention to work in urban schools, the inclusion of trainees indicating an intention to work in schools with single or multiple disadvantages as well as those expressing no particular preferences in terms of schools they wished to work in and those indicating an intention to work in non-urban schools (rural or semi-rural). Each trainee teacher involved in this second stage of the research was interviewed on three occasions during their PGCE year. The interviews were semi-structured and sought to develop themes from earlier interviews during the second and third interviews. The final interviews took place at the end of each trainee’s PGCE course. For the vast majority of the trainees both the surveys and the interviews took place during the critical period in which they were applying for and being interviewed for posts in which they would begin as newly qualified teachers. A case study developed from interviews with one of these trainee teachers follows.

Case study and discussion

The following case study of an individual trainee teacher is used to highlight the some of the issues faced by such individuals as they train to teach in schools and higher education institutions and make the transition into the teaching profession.

Lynn (a pseudonym) was 22 when she began her PGCE course. She had been brought up in a socio-economically disadvantaged part of a conurbation and attended her local primary and secondary (comprehensive) schools in that same area. After leaving school she had attended a pre-1992 university to study Modern Languages where she described herself as the ‘token’ local. After graduating she transferred to the PGCE course at the same university where she had also gained a place on the Fast Track teacher programme. During the PGCE course she lived with her partner and child in the same part of the city where she had been brought up and remained in close contact with her extended family. Early in the course she indicated that she wanted to work in an inner city school and explained it as follows:

‘I think kids from that background – the bark is a lot worse than the bite so to speak’

Lynn referred to her own schooling as a reason why she wanted to work in such an environment:

‘I had quite a positive experience from school because I was quite bright and so teachers always had a lot of time for me’

During her first school experience, in a school in the same area of the city in which she had attended school herself, she described the reaction of the pupils to her presence as a teacher as follows:

‘They all thought it was hilarious that I was from (the same part of the city)…..’

During her first period of school experience she used the school bus to get home and again got a strong reaction from the pupils:

‘It was worse for the kids than it was for me……the kids were so shocked ….there was never any problem where I thought I’d have to intervene, nothing other than swearing and I am not going to tell them off on a bus for swearing, maybe some people would but you know’

By the end of the first period of school experience there was an emerging sense of Lynn reflecting upon her relationship with the locality and the pupils attending the schools. In her interviews there was no sense of Lynn entering an environment that was in any way alien to her at least in terms of the locality in which she had lived. Consequently the distance between her and the inner city did not exist in the same way that it clearly does for both US and some English trainee teachers (Batteson and Sixsmith, 1995, Sobel and French, 1998, Burant and Kirby, 2002). However, she did have concerns about how lived in experiences of the inner city might transfer to other urban contexts. This was manifested in concerns about the extent to which she would be able to empathise with disadvantaged young people from other cities

I don’t know whether I would have the same empathy with people in a different city….In a way you make a difference quite quickly your accent they (the pupils) do automatically assume that they know all about your background whereas teaching in another city my accent is not going to mean anything to them so they are not going to make assumptions so it is a different kind of thing

Lynn was also concerned about the extent to which her capacity to relate to young people would operate across the conurbation in which she lived. She explained this in terms of how people in other parts of the city might respond to her accent and where she came from:

People living in (another part of the conurbation) just think (the district of the conurbation Lynn had been brought up in) is one big ghetto

Lynn’s second period of school experience was in a more suburban and affluent district of the conurbation. Lynn described it as follows:

Very middle class school in my opinion…it is deceptive because a lot of the kids travel from further out…..I did a lot of conversation with years 10 and 11 the kind of things like where do you go on holiday, what do your parents do and fro answers that I got in those kind of sessions yes it is quite a middle class school.

This was the first time that Lynn had mentioned social class in the interviews and there is a sense of her using this concept in a negative manner to describe what she is not rather than what she is. This was also evident in Lynn’s second interview in which she speculated upon herself teaching in one of the most elite secondary schools in the conurbation.

Can you imagine me at (name of elite secondary school), not really you know

This may be related to apparent confusion about her own class status in relation to her family. This apparent confusion was most evident when Lynn discussed her mother’s social class

My mum’s got middle class aspirations, my mum’s in denial about the fact that you know we are not very posh, but I don’t know I just think she is just my mum

By way of contrast, Lynn was much clearer about her father’s social class. She described him as being ‘very’ working class. Similar tensions were evident when Lynn was discussing the influence of her parents on her choices of school. Lynn referred to her mothers’ aspirations for her and subsequent disappointment that being on the Fast Track programme would exclude teaching at independent schools, although there was a sense that this aspiration was mediated by her mother’s recognition of Lynn’s own position on this matter:

But then as soon as we talked about it she has been yes she understands why I want to teach in that kind of school

Her father’s interest in her career progression was described thus:

He is interested in what I do and stuff and I talk to him about teaching, he likes hearing all the stories and he is proud of me going and doing what I am doing. But he would never offer me career advice

In terms of making sense of these expectations or lack of them from her parents Lynn described a strong sense of agency in pursuing goals on her own terms:

I have always gone against people’s perceptions of what having made it is, like people who advised me against going into teaching because that didn’t tally with their ideas about being successful

There is a notion here of Lynn constructing a set of values to counter those she faces amongst family and friends and of the initial decision to go into teaching being a social and cultural manifestation of those values.

Lynn spoke of her second, ‘middle class’ school in positive terms in a number of respects and made a number of unfavourable comparisons with her first school serving a more socio-economically disadvantaged intake of pupils. This can, within the context of her continued commitment to teaching in an inner city school, be interpreted as evidence of a more complex understanding of the lived in realities of working in disadvantaged schools. She was impressed, for example, with the standards of professional practice she observed in her second school and compared both these and teacher pupil relationships favourably in relation to her previous school.

It was nice to see what a really good school is, yes I really enjoyed it but it has made me definitely want to go to an inner city school

From the first interview there was a tension between Lynn’s desire to work in an inner city area and the pressing need to gain employment:

‘I am just really concerned about getting a job first of all………I am the only wage earner in my house so I have not got the flexibility where I can wait and see what comes up if you see what I mean.’

Consequently it was not clear that her first job would actually be in an inner city school. Such tensions can be viewed as being manifested in her application for a post in the more suburban school in which she undertook her second period of school experience. Lynn was not short listed for interview for this post.

Lynn expressed the view in all three interviews that others, with less understanding of the culture and context of her area, might fail to understand the actions, words, intentions or positions of those who lived there.

‘I think a lot of the time some teachers see things as a discipline issue that I wouldn’t necessarily see as a discipline issue…….sort of being cheeky which the teacher would take as an affront’

‘I am well aware of how my situation on paper could be conceived by somebody else if you see what I mean. But in reality I come from quite a happy home but on paper it wouldn’t look like that…I think a lot of the time people make judgments on kids and their backgrounds’

There is a sense in the above of Lynn’s deep lived in experiences of her locality leading to concerns about the extent to which those without such knowledge and understanding would be able to understand and work effectively with young people in that locality.

Close to the end of the PGCE course Lynn was offered and accepted a post at an inner city school in a different city. The school had low levels of attainment, had recently been in special measures and could be described as facing multiple disadvantage.

Lynn’s case offers an insight into the potential complexities of trainee teacher’s transitions into teaching in inner city schools and the potentially fragile nature of their position. There is some sense of class consciousness and a strong sense of affinity with young people in disadvantaged urban schools and of links between this and the desire to teach in urban schools for Lynn. Yet despite this there are tensions that can be linked to her own family and, more acutely, to her own and her immediate family’s economic circumstances, that have the clear potential to act as countervailing influences leading her to apply for jobs not matching this desire and potentially taking up the first post she is offered. Ostensibly Lynn might be viewed as a member of the creative class most obviously through her participation and inclusion in the Fast Track scheme. Her academic record, and attendance at an elite higher education institution since leaving school, would further strengthen her profile in this respect. However, her lack of geographical mobility and sense of self strongly linked to her local, class based affinities suggest otherwise and do not neatly fit the description offered by Florida (2002). Lynn has a strong sense of locality and of forging relationships with young people as a teacher based upon this notion of locality. There is evidence that her knowledge of her locality and the broader conurbation within which she lives has impacted upon her ideas about teaching and informed decisions about the sort of contexts in which she would like to teach. How far these notions transfer as she reconstructs her sense of place to her new post in a different city remains to be seen.


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Thanks and acknowledgements

We are heavily indebted to Stephen Ball, Tim Brighouse, David Hargreaves, Chris Power, Diane Reay, Mick Waters, Geoff Whitty for being so generous with their time and allowing us to interview them about their notions of urban education and schooling in urban areas.

We would also like to thank Jacqui Nunn and Marilyn Leask for their support and encouragement and the Teacher Training Agency for funding parts of the work represented in this paper through their ‘Research and Development Awards’.

*Address: David Hall, University of Manchester, School of Education, Oxford Rd, Manchester M13 9PL. Tel: ++ 44 (0)161 275 6946

This document was added to the Education-line database on 25 November 2004