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Cliff Warwick - External mentor – Fostering excellent teachers and future leaders

Cliff Warwick Article ImageThere can be little doubt that the establishment within Wales of a network of external mentors to support the professional development of teachers entering the profession is making a significant contribution to the quality and consistency of practice. It is also providing the mentors with invaluable training and experience to enhance their leadership and management skills.

After some initial ‘teething problems’ the reformed system for managing the induction of newly qualified teachers is now firmly established. National professional teaching standards combined with a much more rigorous system of quality assurance have done much to remove previous inconsistencies. It also provides newly qualified teachers with an experienced teacher to act as an external mentor to support them through the statutory induction process and importantly, help them develop their practice. The external mentor provides pivotal co-ordination between the school’s management, the NQT’s school-based mentor and the local authority. Both teachers and school managers have been unequivocal in articulating the key role external mentors have had in establishing the new induction process.

One could argue that for the newly qualified teacher, the external mentor provides a similar role to that provided by local authority advisers of previous times; supportive but ultimately evaluative. There is much more rigour to the process now however. The external mentor’s positive ‘call’ on whether the teacher meets and can evidence all of the 55 Practising Teacher Standards is crucial. Without it, ‘passing’ the induction year is more or less impossible.

The external mentor formally observes at least two lessons taught by the teacher and uses these, in discussion with the school based mentor to identify key strengths and areas for improvement for the teacher to work on. Similarly, over the four or five visits made during the induction year, the external mentor provides the critical evaluation on the validity and quality of the mandatory Statutory Induction profile. The external mentor is also formally responsible for facilitating the school’s effective implementation of the statutory induction process and is required to submit termly quality assurance reports to the local authority.

In spite of the predominantly formal, authoritative prime function of the external mentor, there is a strong emphasis on ensuring a positive relationship with the newly qualified teacher and schools through a nurturing, developmental role, which is maybe more appropriate to the role nomenclature! The external mentor works with the school based mentor to provide tailored support and mentoring directed at supporting the teacher to meet the requirements of the induction.

Well organised national and regional co-ordination has led to effective training of external mentors and a meticulous recording and reporting system, all of which has done much to raising the status and ensuring improved consistency and credibility of the new system.

For those newly qualified teachers with a bit more ambition who take up the option of the Welsh Government’s Masters degree course in Educational Practice (MEP), their external mentor also provides mentoring and coaching linked to the course during their initial year and for a further 2 years until they achieve their Masters degree.

The MEP is a blended learning course, which is co-delivered by an alliance of four universities: Cardiff, Aberystwyth, Bangor and the University of London Institute of Education. It is an ‘enquiry’ based professional learning programme, focusing on the key national priorities and structured around the day-to-day classroom practice of the students. The majority of the content is delivered on-line through Cardiff University’s Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), which provides learning resources and relevant research evidence, including case studies of effective professional practice in Wales and beyond. It also hosts Discussion Boards organised around each of the modules. Each course module is launched by a compulsory regional Learning Event led by academic staff, supported by the mentors, who run practice-related workshops.

Each MEP mentor is responsible for up to fifteen students or mentees and is appointed as an honorary tutor at Cardiff University. They provide the ‘glue’ that binds the whole MEP programme together. Apart from their role at the Learning Events, they meet with the students, usually, but not always, at their school. Some mentors and mentees find their best reflective dialogue occurs away from the school over a coffee in a local café! The mentoring relationship is based upon a reflective and constructively critical dialogue about their development as teachers whilst helping them to apply proven enquiry techniques to discover how effectively their pupils are learning and how variations in their teaching can improve learning outcomes. Beyond the face-to-face contact, remote but regular contact and discussion is maintained during each module to support their skills of inquiry and reflection on learning outcomes and how their practice has impacted on these. It is not an easy path for these teachers, who are still coming to terms with the realities of life as a teacher and the mentor’s role very often involves a strong pastoral dimension in order to keep them going and engaged. Even with this support, however, some teachers have not ‘gone the distance.’ Some find the extra work involved in Masters level learning just too much on top of other demands and either withdraw or fail to make the grade.

Overall, MEP mentoring is both demanding and rewarding. It provides rich opportunities for mentors to develop professionally and to extend their skills in teacher development, teacher inquiry and building professional learning communities. For those on part or full-time secondment from their schools it provides invaluable opportunities to experience professional practice in other classrooms and for many in a cross-phase context as well. They also benefit from a significant programme of university training covering module content and mentor skills training. The training days, and the Learning Events supported by an on-line community provide plenty of opportunity for invaluable professional dialogue with other mentors, who as a group are drawn from a surprisingly wide range of teacher-professional backgrounds and experience. The blend of ages and professional profiles of the mentors has been skilfully harnessed by university lead mentors and academic staff to facilitate a powerful formative process around the development of the MEP. This blend of teacher professionals and academics has ensured that the MEP has remained true to the original ministerial vision of a truly practice based masters degree.

As an aspiring school/education leader external mentoring undoubtedly provides a golden opportunity for significant professional development. For a headteacher seconding a member of their middle or senior management the potential positive impact on their own school through the empowerment of their staff is huge. Some more forward looking headteachers have already taken advantage of this ‘new expertise’ to develop mentoring in their schools and to incorporate enquiry based approaches to enhance the quality of their self-evaluation processes.

Fundamentally though, for most of the teachers entering the profession the support from an external mentor is providing huge benefits in helping them realise their aspirations on entering the profession. There is a real sense that for those on the MEP, in particular, that the programme is accelerating the development of future leaders of our education system. It is not surprising that the model is attracting significant interest from other governments around the world on a development that is uniquely Welsh! The decision, therefore, to not to continue with the MEP in its current form is somewhat surprising. One can only assume that the envisaged new Masters framework due to be announced soon will build upon the undoubted success of the MEP and its integral model of professional mentoring!

Cliff Warwick

Cliff is a retired headteacher who is now working as an independent consultant, which includes his appointment as an MEP External Mentor. He is a specialist in inclusion and additional learning needs and has had a wide range of professional experience in education across special and mainstream sectors, including time as a senior local authority adviser and service manager and a secondment to the Welsh Government working on policy and ALN legislative reform. He has also been an Estyn Registered inspector and member of the Welsh Government’s Ministerial Advisory Group.