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Is placing beginning teachers into challenging schools actually supporting school improvement, or is it jeopardising our future teachers?

Corinne Greaves, University of Exeter Heidi Long, University of Exeter

The University of Exeter was selected to take part in the ‘Expanding ITE’ project, in which the Department for Education’s (DfE) aim was to ‘support our best teacher trainer providers … to expand their reach into challenging areas … so more areas benefit from excellent teacher training, and help increase the supply of great teachers to the schools that need them the most’. (DfE, 2017). This project followed on from the Educational Excellence Everywhere white paper (DfE, 2016, p. 34) advocating that ‘great teachers are encouraged to work where they are most needed’. Effective teaching can lead to three months’ more progress for pupils than less effective teaching (Hanushek & Rivkin, 2010, quoted in Major & Higgins, 2019). The premise that good teaching can have an impact on school improvement, particularly in areas of low social mobility, is sound, but is it fair to view our beginning teachers, even those exhibiting exceptional promise, as the great teachers needed to support schools as described by the DfE?

On a traditional postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE) course, students pay substantial fees to learn the skills of teaching. This differs from alternative programmes such as Teach First where participants are paid to train and are recruited with the understanding that they will be exposed to challenging schools from the outset. Traditional PGCE students expect a scaffolded approach to their development, and if they are exposed to a greater level of challenge than they are prepared for, this could result in them leaving the profession. Even within the Teach First cohorts who have chosen to work in these settings, the majority leave their disadvantaged schools at the end of the programme or in the following years (Rice, Volkoff, & Dulfer, 2015). Are we helping schools in areas of socioeconomic disadvantage such as the schools in ‘opportunity areas’ if beginning teachers are being put off by their experiences?

‘Are we helping schools in areas of socioeconomic disadvantage such as the schools in ‘opportunity areas’ if beginning teachers are being put off by their experiences?’

As early career researchers based within the partnership team of a Russell Group initial teacher education (ITE) department, we tested this question by surveying the PGCE cohort using self-report methods including questionnaire, interviews and focus groups. Sixty-one responded to the initial questionnaire, six were interviewed and six took part in the focus groups. Our results showed that beginning teachers were keen to share their expertise and make a difference to the pupils they teach, but many were wary of experiencing a challenging school for fear of an unmanageable workload and not being experienced enough to deliver lessons that can ‘shape a life’. Can we make these beginning teachers more resilient, or should they train in a school where the perceived challenge is less, learn their skills and then move on?

We were interested in what our trainees perceived to be a ‘challenging school’. The initial definition from trainees threw up the expected – Ofsted grade was mentioned many times, as was behaviour. However, the most overriding factor for trainees was socioeconomic disadvantage. Trainees painted a bleak picture: when asked what they might see and how they might feel upon entering a challenging school, one focus group participant suggested ‘it was almost certainly raining’, while the tight security procedures made schools seem like a prison.

Exploring whether they wanted to train or work in challenging schools resulted in a mixed response. Research participants mainly responded yes, they want to make a difference, but only with the right support and maybe not yet. On the whole they didn’t feel ready; they wanted to increase their skills and their confidence because the additional challenges they perceived in the bleak schools they described were too much so early in their careers. Trainees did acknowledge that the PGCE year would be a supportive time to experience a challenging school, with university and mentor support available. A bad experience could result in trainees avoiding ever working in challenging schools, but not having the experience could mean that their fears about working in one prevent them from ever ‘making the difference’ in an area of socioeconomic challenge that they so want to make.

We need, therefore, to ensure trainees have positive experiences, so they build their resilience and become the high-quality teachers that schools in areas of socioeconomic challenge deserve. This could be even more important now, during a time of Covid-19, when beginning teachers have even more challenges to face, such as virtual delivery, working in bubbles and supporting pupils who have been out of formal learning for some time. Our learning from the pilot would suggest that if we do want trainees to work in ‘challenging schools’, we need to pay as much attention to the trainee experience of the school as to the school experience of the trainee.


Department for Education [DfE]. (2016). Educational excellence everywhere. London. Retrieved from

Department for Education [DfE]. (2017). Initial teacher training (ITT) provision expansion pilot (press release). Retrieved from

Department for Education [DfE]. (2020). Every lesson shapes a life (TV campaign).

Major, L. E., & Higgins, S. (2019). What works, research and evidence for successful teaching. London: Bloomsbury.

Rice, S. Volkoff, V., & Dulfer, N. (2015). Teach For/Teach First candidates: What conclusions do they draw from their time in teaching? Teachers and Teaching, 21(5), 497–513.