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Mature candidates for teacher training:
A case study

Roger J. Vallance
The University of Notre Dame Australia
In a survey of approximately 1000 people training to be secondary teachers in England in 11 tertiary training institutions, it was noted that there was a trend towards an increasing number of older candidates (>35 years) presenting themselves for teacher training.

A group of these students was selected for follow up case studies and interviewed within their schools during their first six months of full time employment. Differences were noticed between younger and older interviewees, and between older men and women, in terms of the way they described their reasons for choosing teaching, their continuing motivation for teaching, their coping skills and strategies as well as their perceptions of how they addressed the tasks of the beginning teacher.

Some implications for those selecting applicants for teacher training are addressed. The contributions of the more mature beginning teacher are explored and some suggestions are offered as to how the teaching profession as a whole might profit.


There have been a number of studies that describe the progress and enculturation of the first year teacher. Many of these studies have been focused on primary teachers (Cains and Brown, 1996; Cameron-Jones and O'Hara, 1997; Cains and Brown, 1998), or based on the implicit notion that the cohort of those training to be teachers is uniform (Elliott, 1991; Brooks, Barker and Swatton, 1997; Grimmett, 1997) or can be considered to be uniform in most respects (Head, Hill and Maguire, 1996; Heafford and Jennison, 1998). In extensive survey work with those doing graduate training to teach secondary students, it was observed that there were strong trends of difference in some biographical data. It was expected that there would be differences in participation rates with respect to gender. The extent of the diversity of age range among those training for teaching was not suspected. It is the sub-group of older students in the sample which is the focus of this study.


During the academic years of 1994/1995 and 1995/1996 a series of surveys of Post Graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) students, enrolled in the secondary PGCE program, was conducted in a number of Institutes of Higher Education (IHEs). Along with the survey materials was an invitation to participate in case study observations to be conducted in the following year, when the student was in his/her first six months of full time employment (Vallance, 1998).

Figure 1[1] shows that the sample of students had an unexpectedly high proportion in the older age groups. The left hand side of the graph, where the two lines start far apart, is due to data of the sample having been collected six to nine months after the Graduate Teacher Training Registry (GTTR) data. The GTTR data reported that 65% of trainees for secondary teaching were female and the female sample proportion was 62%. Moreover, there were very few subjects wherein females did not predominate: Business Studies and Economics; Physical Education and Geography were the only ones in the sample which had more males than females (GTTR, 1997).

Figure 1

Figure 1: Age Distribution of PGCE students

A close inspection of the sample shows that the proportion of males and females in the older groups was different. Figure 2 shows that the distribution of gender was related to age. Of the younger students, the majority were female. For those in their middle to late twenties, the ratio of males to females was more equal, and then in the older ages there were more males to be found. A similar trend was published by the GTTR (1997, Table A2). Over the whole sample, the average age of females was 2 years and 3 months less than that of males.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Age distribution of the sample by gender

The presence of more males in the older age groups, seen in the right hand side of Figure 2, suggests that there may be some differences between the forces that bring women compared to men to teaching later in life. It is reasonable to claim that these different motivations encouraged the acceptance of more men into PGCE courses. It is important to note that these figures relate to those who did PGCE courses, so there is no information here about those who might have earlier qualified with a PGCE or other teaching certificate and then returned to the teaching profession after a gap of some years. As the sample was conducted in the third term, there was no measure of how many dropped out of the PGCE courses.

Selecting the sample

The contrasts of ages and genders in the original sample of interviewees (Figure 2) was noted in the second half of the data gathering period. It was decided to investigate further this group of older students in the sample when possible participants became available. When newly qualified teachers (NQTs) accepted the invitation to participate in the classroom observation case study, older NQTs were accepted into the case study even if they did not meet the other criteria for inclusion. These other criteria were: that the volunteer was located within a distance that allowed access and that they contributed to the balance of the sample in terms of some personality variables under study (Vallance, 1997). The original sample was formed by convenience sampling. The purposive sampling (Cohen and Manion, 1994, p89) to generate this case study enabled a sub-group to be developed so that the interaction of age with some variables could be investigated. The final distribution of ages is described in Figure 3. The total number of participants in the case study was forty-seven people.

36 and over44

Figure 3: Age distribution of case study participants

This sample properly forms a case study. Yin (1981, p59) speaks of the case study as a research strategy which can be distinguished from other strategies by its data collection. A case can be defined as a functioning system which is bounded so that those belonging to the case can be identified on clearly defined grounds (Huberman and Miles, 1994, p440). Hence, the case is often, although not necessarily, formed by a purposive sample (Stake, 1994, p236). Such a sample is conducted when an 'intrinsic case study is undertaken because one wants better understanding of this particular case.' (Stake, 1994, p237). The purpose of this study is to better understand some self-perceptions of those who train as teachers in their mature years.

The observation study, of which this report forms a part, included both classroom observation and interview components. This report will present reflections on some of the data from the interviews (Vallance, 1998). The interviews consisted of two primary areas of discussion: the participant's concept of themselves as a teacher; and their concerns and constructions of the teaching tasks they performed.

The interviews were conducted as semi-structured conversations which were audio recorded with the explicit permission of the participant. The transcription was compared to the recorded interview by simultaneously listening to the tape and reading the text. Corrections were made as required on the page. These were later used to update the disk copy (Sherrard, 1997). This process was carried out at least twice for each interview, sometimes a third reading and listening was employed for recordings that seemed to contain many corrections.

Data preparation was conducted as per Pidgeon and Henwood (1997, pp258-273) with the intention that computerised data management would be utilised. Open coding (Strauss and Corbin, 1990, pp61-74) was applied. The texts were read closely a number of times. On each reading, annotations of the texts were made to record my observations and my developing understanding. These annotations were collected on separate sheets as summaries for each interview and, for each concept, quotations and examples from each interview were noted. Thus, there was a two-way classification of concepts by participants with the text being the content of the classification cells. The concepts were refined, polished and expanded on further readings. Relationships between concepts became the hypotheses for further readings. During this process, some concepts coalesced, others subsumed what became subordinate concepts and some were discarded (Rubin, and Rubin, 1995, pp252-265). During this phase of the analysis, the texts were introduced into the computer program QSR Nud*ist Rev. 4 for Windows (QSR, 1997). [Nud*ist stands for: Non-numerical Unstructured Data * Indexing Searching and Theorising]. Coding and analysis was performed within Nud*ist.

It is not intended to do more than explore the differences exhibited within the framework of the older sub-group and contrast the conceptualisations and reflections of the younger and older participants. The nature of the study pre-supposed that what was said by the interviewee would be taken, not necessarily at face value, but as a serious attempt to develop the participant's self-rationalisation and effort to make explicit the understandings that form the subjects of this study. In that all participants were treated equally and the interview was used as a relatively uniform instrument, it is felt that comparisons between the groups are not unfair. Indeed, as the issue of the presence of an older cohort became apparent only towards the end of the study when most of the interviews had already been done, the interviews of most of the older cohort were uncontaminated by even the recognition that they were a group of interest.


The older sub-group differed from the younger cohort in several ways. Firstly, the older NQTs felt that they handled stress more appropriately than their younger peers. Secondly, they differed in the ways that they expressed their reasons for teaching. These two categories are part of the concepts formed in the larger case study as described above. A third difference, within the motivation for teaching, was that the older men differed from the older women in their expressions of motive.

For the sake of brevity, indicative quotations, rather than reports of each response, will be offered. The respondents chose for themselves pseudonyms which are used herein. It is important to note that all these NQTs, by the very nature of completing a PGCE, have been accepted by an IHE and also found full-time employment. Therefore, it cannot be claimed that these NQTs are representative of all those older persons aspiring to be teachers.

Handling stress

The younger group of teachers voiced a number of stressors experienced in their first six months of teaching. These included: getting to know large numbers of students; enculturation of the classroom; the expectations of heads of departments and school administrators; coping with problem students; teaching unfamiliar content; long hours spent in planning; and the constant busy-ness found in schools. The older sub-group did not report different stressors but made much less of them. In general 'stress' was not part of the older sub-group's conversation about teaching, except to comment that their younger NQT peers seemed to suffer from it. When asked why they felt less stressed, the older group referred to previous work history, a sense of having coped with problematic situations before, and having a broader perspective. Their conversation had strong overtones of possessing a stronger sense of self.
'I've worked in a bank; dealing with customers, and the pressure's always on'. Gareth, 49 years

'In my last job (ambulance officer/paramedic), the stress was extreme... I didn't know what I'd face at any call-out.... and that fear really stressed me. I had to clamp down emotions. Here, the kids are real (people) and I do not need to hide my emotions.' Paul, 46 years

While Gareth and Paul have come from other careers and teaching was not their first choice, both express the conviction that teaching better suits their abilities and allows them to better use their own talents. Even when some of the older NQTs speak about difficulties in the classroom, their conversation relates more to their understanding of the students, rather than the difficulties they themselves are experiencing.
'I'm not doing the teaching that I want to.... and I think they're still, they're still pushing their luck, they're still testing, they're still pushing against (me). I mean, I'm a mum, I know that they do that, all the while, they need a barrier and you mustn't move that barrier because that's their security barrier and therefore they keep pushing against it and you've got to stand firm, you know'. Helen, 39 years

'I've identified this as something that I think I do do well, is actually understanding that every behaviour has a reason behind it..... and I think that other (younger) NQTs fail to grasp that idea, but I think I do, so I think it's simply to have this awareness that everything that children do has a reason.' Dave, 41 years

Why choose teaching?

Of the 39 participants not in the 'older' category, only one made a comment about wanting to be a teacher because she liked children - and this was outside the interview and so was not part of the taped record. It is known, from conversations with those staff involved in the selection and interview processes prior to acceptance into a PGCE program, that sentiments of 'liking children' are very commonly expressed and form the kernel of many applications for a teacher training position. But in the context of this interview study, younger NQTs did not express this motive. 'Love of the subject'; 'wanting to continue working with my subject'; 'a good way to use my talents'; and 'I like the variety in teaching' were commonly expressed as were, though less frequently, 'a good, steady job'; 'gives me options for other things later on'; and 'get me established so that I can go into [writing/ book-selling/ publishing/ further academic studies]'.

By contrast, the older NQTs spoke with a clear sense of concern for children.

'Yes, I like them, I want to get to know them. I like them a lot. But that's what teaching is.' Martine, 41 years

'I sat and I thought about, very careful, about the kind of job where I could make a contribution.....But it (teaching) is a job where I believe I can make a contribution, to help kids, that is more important to me (than a higher salary)'. Haydn, 49 years In some ways, the findings above are not at odds with reflection upon the age group. It would be hoped that, as people mature in their job and family life, they grow to a fuller understanding of themselves, a better application of their abilities and a deeper perception of how they might like to best use their talents. What is interesting is that older people have been drawn to teaching, which might be visualised as a young person's career, especially as for each of these older NQTs the choice of teaching meant returning to full-time education for at least a year. Returning to the classroom, within a cohort of much younger trainees, the academic demands of assignments, and practice teaching itself would have connections to each individual's self-concept.

Differences between the older NQTs

This section comes from the responses of the NQTs to probing within the question 'Why become a teacher'?, and, 'What do you get out of teaching?'

The males of the sub-group responded in ways that can be read as self-confident, generous and even altruistic. There is a strong sense of choosing teaching for the good of the students they encounter, while still acknowledging that neither they nor their students are perfect. It is clear from the tenor of the interviews, read as complete events and part of the classroom observation experience, that these participants do not overlook problems in their previous employment (cf. Paul) or even a sense of failure in being re-trenched (Gareth, quoted above).

'I think about the long term implications of failed students. I think about what happens to individuals who have no qualifications. I think about youngsters, especially youngsters from the East End, trying to compete against other individuals in the market place for jobs.' Haydn, 49 years

'I wanted to work with a team, so there was a desire, probably a selfish one, to become, I don't know, perhaps, useful again, to be something which I felt would be really worthwhile and useful, which I didn't feel (in previous job)....The desire to continue to basically make people, I don't know, perhaps feel more successful than they've felt throughout their whole lives, that, I think, is part of my desire to teach.' Gareth, 49 years

There was a sense of having a new start, 'to be useful again' (Gareth), but there was a further sense of teaching being right for Gareth then, so that he can speak of a 'desire to teach' (cf. Gareth, immediately above). This perception of these older men stretched their understanding beyond technical competence, basic skills and classroom management to a sense of educating the whole person. Their understanding of "education" resonated with what was better in life for the person and spoke strongly of human values.

In contrast, the group of women who formed the sub-group of older NQTs spoke of more immediate and personal concerns that motivated their choice of teaching.

'That's why I decided to do, part of the reason I decided to come into a community (school) that has a joint aim. Perhaps, my true heart lies in self expression, individually developing resources and writing.' Leah, 48 years
Helen, in commenting on her experience of the first three months of teaching not being as she expected, said about coping with classroom demands:
'What I've learned in teaching, it's what I've learned in life, you know, about children, and that is "these are the rules" and you don't bend, you give a little bit sometimes on some things....' Helen, 39 years
Helen talked about sticking at it and coming through what she experienced as a steep learning curve so that at the end she could see herself to be a competent teacher. She judged this competence in terms of acquiring a sense of ease with the tasks of teaching as well as the students achieving the curriculum goals. Martine expressed her motivation for teaching in financial terms:
'I always knew I liked science ... and I did my OU (Open University) degree and then.. I thought that I would teach maths or science, and I've ended up teaching science. And also my kids are coming up to the age where they'll be going to university and, you know, I need a job that, I mean teaching's not that well paid but will bring money in whilst....I'm not someone who's got this burning desire to be a teacher if they pay me 3 pence a day then I'd carry on, 'cause I'm not like that, there are members of the science staff here that are, but I'm not. Martine, 41 years
Martine's closing remark was made in a humorous manner. Nevertheless, there is a clear sense that her motivation is partly economic, about which there is nothing wrong, and that teaching fitted her needs with regard for her children. This group of women, outside the taped interview, mention that their pay is similar to or marginally greater than their previous remuneration.

The men experience a large drop in salary, in Haydn's case to less than half his previous salary, as they are without exception on NQT pay scales. Yet this is not mentioned within the interview either as a focus of stress or dissatisfaction, or as an issue of concern. Clearly, money was not high on their list of priorities. For some, working spouses and grown up families who needed less support relieved the monetary demands or the investment of severance pay provides other income. Others re-adjusted their expectations to make do with less income than they did previously. This information was part of discussions outside the interview, since not one male mentioned financial concerns with reference to his late choice of teaching.

The expressions of the older women, in this group, seem to be less focused on the good of the students in themselves and more focused on what the teachers can gain from teaching. The older men responded to the questions with comments that were more concerned with what they could give to teaching, rather than what they could get.


At this juncture it might be prudent to clarify what is not claimed. It is not the contention of this article that women are less generous as people nor are they to be less regarded as teachers. The NQTs observed seemed to teach well, their immediate superiors or department heads expressed satisfaction with their work and generally the classes observed appeared to be happy and productive places.

It is self-evident that the older applicant for teacher training comes with more experience of life than someone straight from school. Most older participants, and everyone involved in this study, had had experience in at least one other full-time job for at least five years. All were people in stable relationships with families of their own. The majority had families that were older and in some cases this created the freedom to pursue a career choice for personal rather than monetary reasons. It is clear that each of the older NQTs had a well-established sense of self in terms of abilities, worth and values.

It is suggested, on the basis of this small group of older NQTs in their first teaching position, that there are some positive contributions to the teaching profession made by the older person who aspires to teach. It was acknowledged (p.4) that the NQTs in this study might not be representative of all those aspiring to train as teachers. Certainly the interview process that precedes acceptance into a PGCE course should make judgements about the suitability of a candidate. It is not uncommon to hear academic staff who conduct interviews with PGCE applicants wonder how an older person might cope with working in a school, have all that many years of service to contribute, get on with other and younger staff, and maybe take the place of a younger person on the PGCE course who could contribute more to education. In this light, the present article attempts to put an alternative view.

The NQTs involved in this study provided evidence that the older NQT can offer a great deal to a school com munity. The older NQT reports, at least in a qualitative, one-to-one manner, less stress in the performance of the duties of the beginning teacher than their younger peers. The older NQTs also report that they handle that stress better, have a stronger sense of working through the stressful times and have personal points of reference that put into perspective these stresses and thus enable them to cope better.

In contrasting the motivation of younger and older NQTs, there is no accounting here for the ways in which motivation may have changed both within the PGCE course itself, which can and should be a very formative process for each student, and within the first months of full-time teaching experience before the researcher met the NQT. It may be that as increasing numbers of older candidates present themselves for teacher training, which the GTTR statistics suggest is likely to be a continuing trend, there can be a response of IHEs that both accommodates those applicants who hold promise and responds to maximise the benefits that the teaching profession stands to gain from the different experiences and qualities of the older NQT.

Figure 4 shows that the success rate of PGCE applicants[2] is a function of their age. The proportion of applicants who gain a PGCE position declines as the age of the applicant increases. Thus, while 60% of younger applicants gain PGCE places, only 37% of males and 25% of females in the oldest categories gain places. The downward slopes of the graphs in Figure 4 are, at least prima facie, evidence that there is some discrimination against older applicants for teacher training. This may mean that there are people who have much to offer teaching, in terms of the above discussion, who are excluded from PGCE courses.

Figure 4

Figure 4: Normalised Success Rate of PGCE Applications

It is clear that the issue of age is not the only issue operative in being a competent NQT and working towards a fuller competence as an established teacher. These interview accounts are drawn from NQTs' own rationalising of their practice and constructions of being a teacher and it may be that this method did not pick up all of the richness of the motivation of each person. These utterances are, however, unprompted and are close enough to the concerns of the teachers to be articulated in an interview. This descriptive account does not seek to replace the searching of motivation and the understanding of the person that is pursued in an interview with a PGCE applicant.

It may be profitable to have a second look at Figure 4. The acceptance rates of both men and women into a PGCE course steadily decline from the youngest age group. If we agree that this mirrors the proportion of applicants suitable for teacher training, what does this say about our understanding of teacher education? Excluding the historical argument, what is it about teacher education that seems to require young people? Acknowledging that the days of the 'job for life' are over and that many people will experience several career changes in the space of their working lives, why are older applicants to teaching less well received? Is it thought that the pace of teaching or the strain of dealing with class groups of children precludes the utilisation of work skills from other jobs, the experiences of different prior training and those personal qualities of persistence, perspective and increased self-knowledge that are commonly associated with more mature people. Further, why are females in the highest age categories so unsuccessful (25%) in gaining a PGCE place?

Little is known about the more mature applicant to teacher training. This sample of PGCE students does not include those who might train for teaching through the B.Ed programs nor those who did not succeed in gaining a PGCE place. This study, consequently, has sampled only one portion of the teacher education applicants. It might be a fruitful avenue for future research to explore the motivations, qualities and values of all older applicants and to more precisely determine what these people might have to offer the teaching profession.


It is contended that those who aspire to teach later in their career story could do so from a qualitatively different perspective from that of the younger entrant. There is evidence that the older NQTs have a more rounded understanding of education and the contribution they can make to this enterprise for the good of the students. Further, it is suggested that the older men are able to articulate a profound sense of wanting to teach so that the students they teach be better or have more opportunities in life. With this in mind, it is suggested that those responsible for selecting applicants for PGCE places give reflective consideration to the richness of life experiences and grounded sense of values that the older applicant may be able to offer.

There is some concern that the age of a PGCE applicant might itself have an adverse effect on how readily they be accepted into a teacher education course. This tendency, if in fact the case, would be discriminatory. Further, it would deny both schools and school students the benefits and experiences of those people who have the capacity to bring a large store of life skills and a maturity of purpose to the role of being a teacher.


I should like to acknowledge the helpful, constructive critiques of Dr M.J. Reiss, Homerton College, Cambridge, and Dr T.H. McLaughlin, School of Education, Cambridge. Both were wise and generous guides during my doctoral studies, of which this research was a part.


  1. Data from the GTTR, 1997, Annual Statistical Report , Autumn 1996 Entry. cf. Table A2, p2. The categories of Figures 1, 2 & 4 correspond to the way that the GTTR reports the ages of the trainees.
  2. Figure 4 was drawn by mapping the number of applicants who were accepted into a PGCE program divided by the total number of applicants for each age category by gender, and these numbers expressed as a percentage (GTTR, 1997, Table A2).


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Please cite as: Vallance, R. J. (1998). Mature candidates for teacher training: A case study. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 1998. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/1998/vallance1.html

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