Harnessing the mentoring power of staff other than subject mentors within schools: widening the interpretation of mentoring within initial teacher education.

Lindsey Smethem* and Bernadette Youens

University of Nottingham

*Corresponding author:

School of Education, University of Nottingham, Jubilee Campus, Wollaton Road

Nottingham, NG8 1BB.

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Warwick, 6-9 September 2006


This paper reports on the outcomes of a small scale project conducted at the University of Nottingham which aimed to broaden the traditional conceptualisation of mentoring in ITE by offering a mentor training programme to the range of school staff working with beginning teacherson a one year secondary Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) course. The current workforce remodelling agenda in England has generated a variety of new roles in schools and thestudy investigates how the contribution all school staff make to ITE is perceived and seeks to explore how the mentoring role of staff, other than subject mentors, can be developed through a mentor training programme. Data were collected from participants through questionnaires and group discussion. Findings reveal that training sessions have increased participants’ awareness of the expectations and demands of ITE. Specific benefits and challenges to working with beginning teachers were identified by all participants and these are considered in relation to beginning teachers’ models of professionalism and current workforce remodelling initiatives.


The focus of this article is school-based mentoring within Initial Teacher Education (ITE) programmes. The notion of school-based mentoring inITE in Englandwas first mooted in 1972 with the James Report which advocated support for new teachers provided by school-based professional tutors (James, 1972). Two decades later, following the significant shift to school-based ITE in England in 1992 (DFE, 1992), thecreation of such a role became a necessity and the term mentor came to denote the central figure supporting beginning teachers’ professional development during school-based phases of the most usual ITE programme, Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) courses.A further change signalled by the 1992 changes was the establishment of formalised partnerships between university departments of education and schools. A key process in setting up, maintaining and developing initial teacher education partnerships became the provision of mentor training by university departments, indeed Sarah Fletcher credits Kenneth Baker the then Secretary of State for Education with ‘effectively creat[ing] a new workforce – the school mentors’ (2000: 6). The significance of mentoring within ITE is further underlined by the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) framework for inspection of ITE providers which requires examination of mentor training provision (Ofsted, 2003).

The importance of the mentoring role in ITE, and in education in general, continued to expand in the following decade. For example, the government’s Five Year Strategy stated that within a ‘new teacher professionalism’ pay progression for experienced teachers onto an upper pay scale (post-threshold) would be dependent upon such teachers 'demonstrating that …they are providing regular coaching and mentoring to less expert teachers' (Department for Education and Skills [DfES], 2004: 66). Professional standards for teachers are issued by the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA); in the draft revised standards, such post-threshold teachers are required to ‘contribute to the professional development of colleagues through coaching and mentoring…’ (TDA, 2006: 20).

The process of mentoring during the school-based phases of secondary ITE is traditionally conceptualised as subject mentoring, with the mentor being an experienced and successful classroom practitioner in a beginning teacher’s own subject area. This narrow definition of mentoring however does not take into account other informal mentoring roles,undertaken by a broad range of school staff, that also support a beginning teacher’s development. Although the contribution of these roles generally remains implicit in secondary ITE,in schools teachers and pupils often participate in mentoring initiatives; pupils might mentor each other and learning mentors and professional development mentors enhance both pupils’ and colleagues’ learning and opportunities. The term mentor has therefore come to have a broader meaning in schools reflecting the wide range of mentoring activities undertaken in schools in response to a raft of education initiatives. The impact of two current initiatives: the School Workforce Remodelling agenda and Every Child Matters legislation in Englandis discussed in the following section.

Following concern surrounding teacher supply, PriceWaterhouse Coopers was commissioned to undertake at Teacher Workload Survey in 2001, and the subsequent National Agreement:Raising Standards and Tackling Workloadsought to implement recommendations aimed to reduce teacher workload. The three stages of the agreementimplemented between 2003-5 were to reduce the administrative burden on teachers,to limit the amount of cover undertaken for absent teachers, to guarantee all teachers ‘planning, preparation and assessment time’ and to provide alternative arrangements for external examination invigilation (DfES 2003). In practice the workforce remodelling agenda has meant schools hiring a range of additional staff to carry out such duties, and thereby enhance pupils’ learning. In 2003 Howard Kennedy, deputy director of the National Remodelling Team, characterised the ‘united team’ within remodelled schools ‘adding value to the child's education’:

Remodelling is a hearts and minds cultural change for schools. Where it works the best is where it brings the school's staff together as a team to further children's education.

National Remodelling Team (2003)

As the school workforce evolves under the Workforce Remodelling agenda, there is a clear need for teachers to be prepared to work effectively with the range of staff in schools, for example the number of teaching assistants working in schools has doubled since 1997. Such preparation extends to ITE wheretraining providers need to raisebeginning teachers’ awareness of the range of colleagues working in schools and the roles they undertake. The necessity for beginning teachers to work collaboratively with a broad range of colleagues in school is recognised in the Standards for Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) which explicitly require beginning teachers to ‘understand the contribution that support staff and other professionals make to teaching and learning’ and to work ‘collaboratively with specialist teachers and other colleagues and … manage the work of teaching assistants or other adults…’ (DfES, 2002). In the draft revised QTS Standards (TDA, 2006) seven of the 28 standards relate to collaboration with other colleagues. One standard makes explicit a commitment to being mentored, as Newly Qualified Teachers(NQTs) should: ‘act upon advice and feedback and be open to coaching and mentoring’ (TDA, 2006: 20). The draft Standards also define ‘colleagues’ as ‘all those professionals with whom a teacher might work… teaching colleagues, the wider workforce within an educational establishment, and also those from outside with whom teachers may be expected to have professional working relationships…’ (TDA, 2006:1). From 2005 the TDA included a question in their annual survey of NQTs to examine how the NQTs rated their training in preparing them to work with support staff in the classroom (TDA, 2005). Clearly university departments of education need to prepare beginning teachers to work with the range of adults in schools, but the question remains now as to whether they consequently have a distinct role in training the range of colleagues for their work with student teachers.

There is a substantial literature on mentoring within the context of ITE, however this focuses on the role of the teacher (occasionally as form tutor) as mentor of beginning teachers (for example McIntyre and Hagger, 1996; Brooks and Sikes, 1997; Fletcher, 1997). A definition of mentoring is variously described in education and within the business and employment world. Fletcher (2000: 4) defines mentoring ‘as a dynamic process whereby a teacher new to the profession not only learns the necessary skills (as an apprentice carpenter might for example) with a more experienced colleague but also develops the attitudes, practice and knowledge that are conducive to bringing about pupils’ learning in class’. As beginning teachers are potentially supported by a much wider range of people beyond the subject mentor the present article adopts Tomlinson’s broad definition of mentoring to be anyone who supports a beginning teacher as a mentor and focuses on the contribution of the range of staff in mentoring beginning teachers(Tomlinson, 1995).Figure 1 identifies existing and potential mentors of beginning teachers.

Figure 1: Existing and potential mentors of beginning teachers

Beginning teachers need to realise the benefits of appropriate support from a range of staff and it is therefore important that they endeavour to establish positive professional relationships with the range of colleagues so that extended mentors can provide such support. The beginning teacher is a ‘professional learner’ in the sense that s/he ‘is someone tackling a new or particularly challenging stage in her/his professional development who seeks out or is directed towards mentoring’ (DfES and Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education [CUREE], 2005: 3). The literature viewsmentoring as a ‘vehicle to support and retain novice teachers’ (Huling and Resta (2001) and the relationship with the mentor as ‘pivotal’ (Hobson et al, 2006). It would seem advisable to widen the mentoring personnel so that a beginning teacher does not have to rely solely on one mentor.

Interim findings from the Becoming a Teacher project (Hobson et al, 2006) highlight the importance of beginning teachers’ relationships with teachers and other staff in schools in this well documented time of challenge in their careers (2006: vii) as the various routes to becoming a teacher are a ‘highly emotional experience’ (2006: xvii), ‘much harder than many initially think’ (2006: ix). The DfES and CUREEhave established a joint framework for coaching and mentoringwhich aims to highlight for schools the key elements of coaching and mentoring as they apply in different contexts. The frameworkdescribes mentoring as ‘a structured, sustained process forsupporting professional learners through significant career transitions’ (2005: 3).

The 10 principles of mentoring and coaching highlight learning through discussion, productive relationships, support from colleagues, increasing self direction, setting challenging and personal goals, acknowledging the benefits to mentors in mentoring (DfES and CUREE, 2005). Given the increase in the range of staff working in schools it is timely to examine the potential of such staff to contribute to mentoring beginning teachers. The increase in the range of staff working in schools challenges existing models of professionalism and encourages ITE providers to work with beginning teachers to develop forms of professionalism which will cope with the diversity of the remodelled school workforce.

Research aims

This paper reports on the outcomes of a small scale project conducted as part of the mentor development programme for ITE courses within the University of Nottingham Partnership. All active subject mentors are required to attend mentor training at the University. The Partnership has a long-standing commitment to conceptualising the mentoring role as inclusive by promoting the idea of ‘mentoring departments’. Any subject teacher working with beginning teachers is invited to attend mentor development sessions and join subject groups which contribute to the development of the ITE courses. The aim of the present project is to broaden the traditional conceptualisation of mentoring in ITE beyond the subject by offering a voluntary remunerated twilight mentor training programme to include the range of school staff working with beginning teachers on a one year secondary (PGCE) course. This ‘extended mentoring’ initiative not only acknowledges the impact that staff, other than subject mentors, can have on the development of beginning teacher competence, but also recognises the role that the ITE provider has in training such colleagues as mentors of beginning teachers. The rationale underpinning the extended mentoring training was twofold: to better prepare staff for working effectively with student teachers in order to promote their development and improve teaching and learning during the ITE year and beyond; secondly to promote the professional development of the staff themselves and empower them to work productively and collaboratively with student teachers.

The research seeks to explore how the mentoring role of staff, other than subject mentors, can be developed through an extended mentor training programme. A further aim of the study is to investigate how the contribution of school staff to ITE is perceived by the extended mentors themselves and by beginning teachers. The particular aspects of the project explored in this paper are how school staff work with student teachers; how they interpret this mentoring role; how they feel they contribute to beginning teachers’ professional development; how they perceive the challenges and benefits in this mentoring work and how they feel the University can support and promote their role.

Theoretical Framework

The rationale underpinning the research is to develop beginning teachers’ notions of professionalism and thus enable beginning teachers to work successfully in changing schools, preparing them to work ‘authoritatively yet openly and collaboratively’ with all colleagues within and beyond classrooms who have a significant interest in pupils’ learning(Hargreaves and Fullan, 1998: 12). Hargreaves and Goodson (1996: 20), suggest that teacher professionalism in a ‘complex, postmodern age’ should include a ‘commitment to working with colleagues in collaborative cultures of help and support as a way of using shared expertise to solve the ongoing problems of professional practice’. Goodson and Hargreaves (2003: 131) underline that such ‘principled professionalism’ is driven by strong beliefs and values and becomes a social practice with moral purpose. To support the aim of widening the mentoring capacity within schools, the study has adopted a broad interpretation of the term mentoring to include anyone involved in the process of ‘assisting student-teachers to learn how to teach in school-based settings’ (Tomlinson, 1995: 7).

Method and analysis

In 2003-4 all partnership schools were offered mentor training for staff other than subject mentors. The initial training familiarised participants with the processes involved in secondary ITE and explored participants’ experienced and potential role in supporting student teachers. Subsequent sessions focussed on mentoring skills and strategies, giving feedback and promoting beginning teacher self-evaluation. Three consecutive years of training have elapsed, with a total of 55 staff attending on at least one occasion; staff attending sessions include heads of year, teaching assistants, Special Educational Needs Coordinators, careers staff, librarians and technicians, from a small range of partnership schools. From the second year (2004-05) the training was increased from one to two sessions during the year, the second event in response to the request from attendees to be able to take their learning further. An ongoing, differentiated programme has been offered since 2004-05 in order to include both colleagues new to working with beginning teachers and those who have attended training previously.

Participants (n=16) attending a training session in 2005 completed questionnaires which investigated motivation to work with beginning teachers, the challenges and benefits in working with beginning teachers and the support provided by the university and outcomes of the extended mentoring training. Initial analysis of the data raised issues which were explored subsequently in a self-selected group discussion with three teaching assistants, which was transcribed and the data were analysed. This paper focuses on the subgroup of teaching assistants (TAs) as they work directly with beginning teachers in their classrooms and TA voice is used to illustrate the research findings. The questionnaire and group discussion aimed to investigate the following research questions:

  • What impact did attending the extended mentoring programme have on participants in terms of professional development?
  • How can teaching assistants’ perceptions of working with beginning teachers inform programme development (PGCE programme and extended mentoring training)?

Research findings

Impact of training programme on teaching assistants

Analysis of the data revealed that the training has had an impact on participants on several levels. TAs appreciate that the extended mentoring training has enabled them to develop an awareness of the requirements of initial teacher education courses, where previously they had made presumptions which often proved erroneous, underestimating the pressures under which the beginning teachers are working.

The opportunity to attend a course specifically addressing TAs’ needs in working productively with beginning teachers has increased their own confidence and status in school, as other colleagues and the Senior Leadership Team appreciate the contribution TAs can make to beginning teacher learning:

‘I think it makes you more aware and I think you observe more and you are more willing and more forthcoming.’

‘They have tried to formalise it a bit more so that student teachers work more with the TAs.’

The TAs share a hope that if teachers appreciate their contribution at the beginning of their own career then the TAs’ status in school as partners in pupils’ learning will increase over time, redressing a historical undervaluing of their position, experience and skills:

‘I think when you’ve worked with a student teacher they obviously are going to take you into account when they are a teacher.’

The TAs value the opportunity to attend courses at the university and the chance to share perceptions with teaching assistants from other schools, which broadens their horizons and enables them to locate their own practice within the wider educational context. This networking also affords the opportunity to discuss issues of perceived low status. They spoke of the positive effect on their status of the University valuing both the extended mentoring and teaching assistant roles through providing this training.

All participants are keen to establish professional relationships with beginning teachers; they are more aware of the emotional dimension of learning to teach; they have more experience, and now look at beginning teachers from a ‘different angle’, they will actively approach beginning teachers and offer support and have a greater understanding of beginning teachers as learners. The following conversation between two teaching assistants is representative of this awareness: