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Challenging Schools- what can we learn from the PGCE trainee perspective?

Corinne Greaves and Heidi Long


Working as school partnership coordinators in the Graduate School of Education we have a strong idea of what the term ‘challenging school’ means to us (not least because we are encouraged to provide trainees with experience in challenging schools during their PGCE), however we are aware that how trainees perceive challenging schools could be quite different and that this might affect their desire to be placed in one. We rely on socioeconomic measures such as Free School Meals and Pupil Premium to identify those schools in challenging circumstances and we know the DfE use Ofsted grades as a measure of challenge (though this is not without issue).

The planning of a new project aimed at encouraging PGCE trainees into rurally isolated challenging schools provided the opportunity to think about exploring what challenge means to our trainees, and what might motivate them to train or work in them. Through a questionnaire to our 19/20 cohort, followed up by focus groups and individual interviews we asked trainees how they defined a challenging school, and if they would like to train or work in one. The initial definition from trainees threw up the expected -Ofsted grade was mentioned many times, as was behaviour, but the most overriding factor for trainees was socioeconomic disadvantage. Through Primary and Secondary focus groups we interrogated the perceptions of challenge and discussions ranged from a challenging school being a bleak place where ‘it was almost certainly raining’ with behaviour issues and tight safeguarding controls, to a place where motivated teachers would go above and beyond for their pupils enabling them to succeed despite their circumstances. Trainees were anxious not to make assumptions about pupil behaviour or attendance though they felt this would be linked to areas of high socioeconomic disadvantage, the factor that they felt was key to defining a challenging school.

Of the 61 trainees responding to the original questionnaire, more wanted to train or work in a challenging school than didn’t (using likert scaling). This was interrogated through 1:1 interviews with volunteers to further understand the motivations behind this scoring. Trainees who wanted to work or train in challenging schools nearly all gave ‘making a difference’ as their prime motivator. Interestingly in the focus groups trainees had talked about demotivation as a personality trait exhibited by some teachers rather than the result of exposure to a difficult working environment. For them a motivated person would want to work in a challenging school to help those pupils most in need, so it is not surprising perhaps, that their strongest motivation was to make a difference. We asked about anything that would worry them about working in a challenging school, and they discussed not being experienced enough to make a positive impact, that they felt the workload would be higher and they were concerned about behaviour management. There was a common theme during the interviews that being in a challenging school would be more difficult and have a higher workload. For this reason, there was some reluctance to be placed in one, or to work in one early in their careers. Some felt it could impact on their own performance during training so therefore impact on their grades. Even the most motivated trainees showed some reluctance to apply for NQT positions challenging schools as felt they needed to ‘learn how to be a good teacher first’.  They thought to address some of these concerns schools should have strong mentor support for trainees (and teachers).

This was a study to one cohort of trainees carried out alongside the promotion of a new project so some of the answers they provided were specifically related to placements in a particular region, however we can see that of the trainees involved most feel that a challenging school is one where the pupils come from underprivileged backgrounds and their motivation for working in these schools is so that they can make a difference. They really do want each of their lessons to ‘shape a life’. This is affirming to hear about our prospective teachers, but it is also important to note that many had worries and concerns, and if we are to support our trainees to train successfully in challenging schools, so that they may one day take a job in an area where they really can make a difference, we need to ensure the right support mechanisms are in place.


DfE (2020) Initial teacher training (ITT): criteria and supporting advice

Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/initial-teacher-training-criteria/initial-teacher-training-itt-criteria-and-supporting-advice#c32-partnerships

DfE (2018) Analysis of teacher supply, retention and mobility. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/682892/SFR11_2018_Main_Text.pdfDfE (2017)

Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential: A plan for improving social mobility through education. Ref. Cm 9541. Available online at:https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/667690/Social_Mobility_Action_Plan_-_for_printing.pdfDfE (2016).

Educational Excellence Everywhere.Ref. Cm 9230. Available at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/508550/Educational_excellence_everywhere__print_ready_.pdf

DfE TV campaign 2020, ‘Every lesson shapes a life’

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