By Andrew Jones

Over the last few years, the government has encouraged schools to take more control of teacher training, as part of their plan to move towards school-led initial teacher training rather than the more traditional university-led routes.

Aside from Teach First, there are now two main graduate routes into teaching: the School Direct path, which means being based in a secondary school for most of the year; and the traditional university-led Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) route. Although School Direct fee-paying courses can lead to a PGCE, schools can also offer a salary for some School Direct courses, which leads to Qualified Teacher Status (QTS), but not a PGCE.

The thinking behind the move towards schools administering teacher training is that they can provide more practical, hands-on preparation overseen by experienced teachers – rather than university lecturers, who may be more removed from everyday school life. Nevertheless, all School Direct routes still involve a day per week at a university or similar institution.

However, the reality is more complex than this simple divide between school-led and university-led choices. As a lead practitioner and now an assistant headteacher, I’ve been co-ordinating School Direct programmes for the last three years. While it has real benefits over the university-led PGCE route, there are also additional challenges particularly around affordability, application procedures and the all-important in-school experience.

An obvious benefit is that many School Direct trainees are employed as unqualified teachers and can be paid. Salaries start from around £15,000 and go higher depending on experience and subject; in fact, some trainees can be paid £25,000 or more if they are in a shortage subject.

Although there are generous bursaries available for some subjects, many university based PGCE students have to take out additional student loans, however. I am still paying off mine after nine years because I took extra to cover my PGCE too. This is also true of the School Direct fee paying courses that lead to a PGCE.

In terms of the application process, both School Direct and university-led PGCE candidates need to pass the skills tests (in numeracy and literacy), have at least a C at GCSE in English and Maths and a good degree (we specify a 2.1 or 2.2 with experience). In addition, the School Direct salaried route also requires three years’ paid work experience in any occupation. This can deter people straight out of university or career changers who may have to take a pay cut.

Once a candidate fulfils all the basic criteria, with School Direct there’s more leeway for schools to appoint a trainee of their choice. Although applications are made via UCAS, schools shortlist, conduct interviews and assess the experience and skills of candidates in relation to the needs of the school. With a university-led PGCE, there’s a more general interview process and school placements may be made after the candidate is accepted by a university.

The most important element for new recruits is the school experience itself – and this is where the two courses differ more widely. One of the benefits of School Direct is the immediate immersion in school life. Unlike a university-led PGCE course, where you often start with lectures before going out on shorter placements, School Direct allows trainees to participate as active members of the community from the off . Working from the of September through to July allows trainees to build lasting relationships with students and colleagues.

Despite being thrown in at the deep end, trainees are gradually introduced to teaching through an initial period of observations before starting a timetable of six hours a week and finishing with 18 hours a week. There is also a second placement lasting up to six weeks and a day each week spent at the school’s higher education partner – often a local university.

University-led PGCE courses tend to offer two placements lasting up to two thirds of the course between them. This means you gain experience in schools and will move from a placement if it is not entirely suited to you; School Direct trainees are stuck unless they resign and leave the programme. You also have more time at university, which means more time for studying and reflecting on your progress as well as spending far more valuable time with peers in a similar situation.

I valued my time away from school as a university-led PGCE trainee and made some lasting friendships with colleagues beyond my own place of work. I also liked the academic focus of being university based and appreciated the gradual immersion into the classroom. But those who just want to get on with the practice of teaching might prefer the School Direct route, especially if you have the confidence to jump in at the deep end and/or experience of working schools. Both routes lead to qualified teacher status and are followed by a probation year and cover the same key standards.

Andrew Jones is Assistant Headteacher for CPD and professional mentoring at the Reach Free School, which is part of the Herts & Bucks TSA. This version of this blog was first published by the Guardian Teacher Network on Monday 19 January 2015. The featured image is by Mosborne01 (via WikiCommons) and used here under a Creative Commons license.