The Importance of ‘Gradualism’ in Initial Teacher Education

Like many of you, I suspect, I’ve been watching the series Tough Young Teachers. I’ve enjoyed following the journeys of the six student teachers and their various trials, tribulations and successes. I take my hat off to anyone who trains to be a teacher, let alone one who decides to train with TV cameras in their classroom capturing every moment for public broadcast! Well done guys and girls!

I think that one of the key features that marks out a PGCE programme from the programme offered by Teach First is the notion of gradualism. By this, I mean the gradual process by which students are carefully and systematically introduced to the teaching of whole classes of children. Much play is made in Tough Young Teachers of  Teach First students beginning teaching from the outset of the academic year with 400+ pupils to teach each week. Personally, I think this is more often than not a recipe for disaster and does not help the Teach First students develop their skills in coherent, systematic or sustainable way. They suffer, and their pupils suffer (sadly) as they are experimented on week in, week out, until improvements are made (which they will eventually in most cases).

On PGCE courses at MMU, we adopt a process of gradualism during the first major teaching placement. We call that placement Block A (not the most imaginative title I know) and it falls within what is known as the ‘formative phase’ of the programme.

The following extract comes from the handbook for the PGCE course and explains what is meant by ‘gradualism’ within this teaching placement (which lasts for around 7 weeks during the second half of the autumn term).

Block A Planning: Gradualism and Progression

This diagram makes explicit the nature of gradualism and progression on Block A. The trainee experience will be framed as strands of complementary aspects of professional development and entitlement:

Trainees and  mentors must use the planning and preparation stages to ensure they create opportunities to engage in all aspects of the grid. Early Block A   Late Block A
 Beginning to teach – identifying prior experience and levels of confidence.  Increasing confidence, responsibility and independence.  Last few weeks provide evidence of ability in sustained teaching practice.
Strand A – Whole class contact.  Focus on planning, teaching, evaluating cycle.  Subject development tasks and assignment activities integrated with classroom practice and development.Formative feedback on planning episodes of lessons  Formal feedback on teaching to prepare for target setting in Block B (reduced formal entitlement).
Strand B – Collaborative teaching and learning
  • Structured activities to develop micro-teaching skills
  • Observation > practice
  • Linked to professional studies


  • Shared teaching at KS4 & 5
  • Working with range of school professionals
  • Leading planning and delivery of collaborative teaching.
Strand C – Development of Subject Knowledge e.g. Observations of experts       Supporting GCSE coursework       Sharing and developing SK

       Gathering evidence for the Inclusive Learning assignment.

Teaching A-levelSupporting GCSE small groupsDeveloping subject resources
Evidence of progress against the Standards Record of Professional Development, including weekly evaluation (and incorporating needs analysis), audit, responses to activities in dialogue with Subject and Professional Mentors.
 Tutor Visits The trainee’s University Subject Tutor will arrange ONE monitoring and moderation visit during Block A.   Tutor visits will vary according to the needs of the trainee teacher and the subject mentor – they will include discussion with the subject mentor and a combination of observation / discussion with TT, and scrutiny of SE files.  The visit will generate a formal written record to cover discussion and observation as appropriate.  The tutor will also have a role in moderating assessment across the range of subject placements.
Fridays at the University Trainees will be set tasks to follow up in school and to report back to their peers in subject or professional practice groups.

As you can see, in various ways the student is gradually introduced to the art of teaching whole classes in planned and systematic way.  This is supported by school mentors and also encompasses one day a week back at the university where university tutors can support their early experiences of teaching. Within these Fridays back at the university, students also work in large, mixed subject groups and share experiences in a way that would be impossible on the Teach First programme in its current form. 

In terms of their actual experience in the classroom, students begin by planning and teaching short episodes within  a lesson, before beginning to sequence these together culminating in the teaching of whole classes during the second half of the teaching placement. The speed of this process does vary, depending on the capability of the student and how they progress. Gradualism is, itself, differentiated carefully through conversations between the student and their mentoring team.

In addition to this, there is also plenty of time during this phase for other activities, such as the observation of other skilful teachers, engagement with a range of subject focused curriculum tasks and activities, and other formal writing on aspects of educational inclusion and diversity. These require the students to engage with the literature of educational research in a structured way as part of their early educational experiences. The assignment that they write at the end of Block A brings together reflective writing related to their teaching and its development with key ideas from the education literature in a particular area.

For all these reasons, and many more that I don’t have time to write about right now, the principle of ‘gradualism’ is central to effective initial teacher education in this early stage of teaching. The Teach First model of a Summer Institute followed by throwing students in at the deep-end is a pale comparison to the systematic and coherent model of gradualism as evidenced within many PGCE programmes. Teach First students are bright and highly motivated. I’m not arguing that they will not make good teachers given time. But the process of them experimenting with large groups of pupils over the course of a long autumn term results in too many pupil casualties for my liking. We all saw that first hand this week, whether it was in a Business Studies class or an English lesson. Teach First need to look carefully at the principles of gradualism and see how they can be applied to their own course structure in a more coherent way. Too many pupils receive a educationally sub-standard experience for too long in their current model.












































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