The National Standards for school-based initial teacher training were developed in response to the Carter Review of Initial Teacher Training (January 2015) with the aim of facilitating greater coherence and consistency in the practice of school-based mentors in order to support the training and development of trainee teachers. (National Standards for school-based initial teacher training (ITT) mentors, 2016). As a school-based mentor, and more latterly a senior mentor, I was excited by the advent of the National Standards, seeing them as a key catalyst for raising the profile of mentoring within educational settings to ensure that support and challenge is offered to those embarking on their teaching careers, as well as those within the early years of their professional development.
My interest lies in how providers of teacher education can assist schools to engage with these standards and use them as a medium to improve the experience and learning of those training to teach. Face-to-face meetings with an opportunity to network are generally considered to be the traditional method for developing networks of partners and trainers, and the best way of exploring educational practices and developing mentoring practice. Few of us would dispute that it is vital for partnerships to continue to develop their capacity to improve by training mentors – ensuring opportunities for trainee teachers are maximised, in order to impact positively upon the achievement and life chances of young people. However, the reality in schools and colleges is that mentors often find it difficult to find the time and space within the school working day to be able to attend these face-to-face meetings. Higher Education Institutions (HEI) try hard to support mentors in being able to access meetings and Continuous Professional Development (CPD) events. For example, they may offer financial support for supply cover or carefully consider the calendaring of these events. Despite these well-intentioned efforts there are still a considerable numbers of barriers for some mentors who unfortunately cannot access these training sessions.
With the development of information and communication technology there are now a range of other opportunities that can be explored and developed to ensure that mentors are involved in consideration and application of the National ITT mentor standards to their professional practice. The Enhance your Mentoring Skills open online course (SHOOC) is one model of this and evaluations and comments from the 3 iterations of the SHOOC to date, indicate what the participants think they need to develop their mentoring practice:
- a space/opportunity to be able to reflect deeply
- a collaborative community where ideas can be shared and developed
- a structure for learning and an opportunity to hear from a diverse range of individual experts
- a variety of activities to engage with, including case studies which provided context
- differentiation to meet the needs of all participants including: flexibility about when to engage, freedom to choose what elements to engage with and limited deadlines
- links to Continuous Professional Development/appraisal targets within school
- a chance to be able to apply the tips from the course to current mentoring roles
The SHOOC attempts to offer some of this, and we are working to improve it further. Feedback so far has been very encouraging. Natasha Hargrove, for example states: ‘it has inspired me and pushed me to do more learning’ (A Mind Apart); while for Charlotte Jones (Heritage Park School) it has allowed her to become ‘familiar with mentor standards and unpicking what they mean on a practical basis has been really useful’. This, Charlotte feels, has ‘improved my own confidence’, adding ‘looking at the research has been interesting and I am keen to read further’. I am particularly interested in this last statement with regard to Mentor Standard 4: Self-development and working in partnership, and the need to engage with robust research, often perceived by mentors to be one of the most challenging strands. The SHOOC facilitated access to a variety of academic literature, providing a bridge between the dichotomous camps of the practising, school-based mentors and the world of academic research. The SHOOC created space to think in a metacognitive way, to challenge established ideas and assumptions about mentoring, and then to be able to use this learning to impact directly on subsequent mentoring practices, something highly valued by participants.
So are online courses the way forward for those who wish to engage with the ITT mentor standards, or learn how to mentor, or to enhance their current mentoring practices? The evidence from the SHOOC evaluation would suggest that online course can be beneficial. However, it is possible that the full benefits of the SHOOC are not entirely quantifiable. The rate of full completion for the SHOOC course was 15% and, while this statistic is in line with other online courses of a similar nature, this doesn’t reflect the positive impacts that the online learning approach had for a number of participants who chose to participate in just some elements of the course, (whether this be a week or two of the programme or just certain activities such as the webinars or exploration of the case studies). These participants may not have formally submitted their reflections and evaluations through the PebblePad platform. The SHOOC team are currently in the process of considering how we improve the course completion rate whilst maintaining the efficacy of the course. It is my belief that online courses need to exist alongside face-to-face activities that potentially enable more complex discourse to take place.
So what next? Online learning appears to have enormous potential to support and enhance existing mentoring practices. The challenges that lie ahead for the SHOOC include: deciding exactly what aspects of mentoring it is best to share, such as operational information or softer and more complex mentor skills; to increase the confidence of those that are new to this style of learning approach and to raise the profile of these types of courses with senior leadership teams in schools, so that they are able to appreciate the positive benefits that are available through this style of collaborative learning.
With regards to accessing and engaging mentors with the National Standards, an audit of mentor confidence seems a sensible starting point for initially engaging mentors and is something that many providers have already initiated. The next challenge is for individual mentors and groups of mentors to explore how to embed and evolve these non-statutory standards to the next level, much like teachers have done with regards to the statutory teacher standards. The ability to network, to share, reflect upon and learn from each other’s experiences is key to any form of learning. What is essential is that this learning then has an impact on professional practice and this is something the SHOOC has achieved.
Alison Grasmeder is the Geography PGDE Lead Tutor in the School of Education, at The University of Sheffield and was a founding member of the Enhance your Mentoring Skills SHOOC. firstname.lastname@example.org @agrasmeder