In education, there are very often buzz words which seem to permeate our consciousness and, at the moment, mentoring seems to be something which school leaders are talking about.
Of course, mentoring new teachers is not new but with the roll-out of the Department for Education’s new Early Career Framework the spotlight is on mentors and mentoring much more than it has been over the past 25 years.
The Early Career Framework is an evidence base which underpins the new entitlement for early career teachers and sets out the minimum expectation of what new entrants to the profession should be learning in their first two years in the classroom. It will also give early career teachers an entitlement to an extra year of support from a dedicated mentor and provide mentors with the training and time needed to execute their role well.
For many years, teacher retention statistics have been telling a grim story: only one in three teachers will make it to their five-year anniversary of qualifying. Although this is down to many factors, such as the workload and high stakes accountability, not feeling supported as an early career teacher also has a huge impact. Therefore, if the Early Career Framework is done well, it could be a game changer – a way to keep talented teachers in the profession.
Mentoring is an extremely rewarding role which has reciprocal benefits for all involved, but it can also be a challenging and exhausting role. Mentors are often advice rich and time poor, particularly in a primary setting where the amount of literacy, phase specific and disciplinary knowledge a mentor must know is much wider than secondary.
In addition, in smaller primary schools, early career teachers may not get a mentor with experience in EYFS, so if the new teacher is a reception teacher, they may be the person who has the most knowledge about this phase, so that may be challenging. This is why if the mentor is a class teacher, it is important that a more senior teacher is also there to oversee and triangulate as they will have at least a strategic overview of that phase which will help them fill the role of expert colleague.
In addition, timing mentor meetings may also be difficult, as unlike secondary schools, it is unlikely that the mentor and mentee would have PPA time together, so time after school may need to be diarised to ensure that the professional dialogue, discussions and reflections, which are so integral to a mentoring relationship, are taking place.
One of the great learning activities to undertake when mentoring an NQT or RQT is collaborative planning. Discussions about lesson design and scaffolding can really help new teachers understand what excellent learning looks like. Again, in primary, this may be difficult, as in a one form entry school there will only be one teacher per class so planning across phases is an important task to involve early career teachers in.
Skilful differentiation and having a deep understanding of students’ prior knowledge is absolutely key, as in each class in primary there may be a huge variation in the academic ability of students. This will be something which will need to be modelled explicitly by mentors, with more experienced colleagues demonstrating practical ways of doing this, as well as signposting the best evidence-based reading new teachers can do.
There are many similarities between mentoring early career teachers in primary and secondary as good teaching is good teaching in any phase. Having the expectations set out in the Early Career Framework is extremely useful to schools but in primary especially, it will take a school to build a successful teacher, not just the mentor.
Haili Hughes is an experienced teacher and mentor. Her new book Mentoring in Schools: How to be an expert colleague – aligned with the Early Career Framework (Crown House Publishing, 2021) is out now and is available from crownhouse.co.uk.