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The Changing Role of Mentors and Mentoring in ITE

Despite this post’s title, one thing is not up for debate: effective mentoring is at the heart of any high quality initial teacher education programme.  Ahead of the writing and publication of the new inspection framework, Ofsted conducted a research study to establish what factors underpin effective ITE provision. And it will come as little surprise to anyone working in ITE, that one of the conclusions this study reached was: “Mentoring is critical for developing trainees’ knowledge, understanding and practical application” (excerpt and link to research report below).
However, while the importance of mentoring is not contested, the role of mentoring is seeing a definite shift. Below we will look at two ways that this is happening: a) the explicit connection between mentor and the curriculum and b) an increased emphasis on the role of target setting.

“The evidence also suggests that in-school mentors are a critical factor in supporting the practical implementation of the ITE curriculum. However, [it also suggests] there are some barriers to making sure that mentoring is always effective.

” In the strongest partnerships, we saw a strength in how course leaders perceived the role of mentors. Across all the partnerships visited, leaders considered mentor training to be imperative for supporting trainees in their placements. However, it was the content of the mentor training and how well-informed mentors were on the curriculum plan for trainees that tended to be the main difference between stronger and weaker provision.”

Ofsted, Building great teachers? Initial teacher education curriculum research: phase 2

The Mentor and the Curriculum

When I was a trainee teacher, I was lucky to benefit from an absolutely brilliant mentor. Not only was he always hugely supportive but he was a fantastic teacher. He clearly and consistently modeled effective practice, both in the classroom and out. He was also hilarious, which definitely helped me retain sanity in the midst of the whirlwind of my PGCE year.
However, I also remember that he was never that involved with what I was learning from university. It wasn’t that he was uninterested, it just didn’t seem to be his role. As far as I was concerned, he was there to help me survive the practical side of my training, my university provided me with (also brilliant) theoretical curriculum input and I was in the middle tasked with trying to bridge these two arenas. While my training was now quite a few years ago, I don’t think that my experience of mentoring is too dissimilar from what I see many trainees experiencing today.
The new Ofsted framework explicitly states that in outstanding ITE provision “Trainers and mentors are consistently skilful at drawing on the taught curriculum during their interactions with trainees, particularly during mentoring sessions and feedback following observations.” (p39). Not only that, inspectors will meet with mentors to explicitly determine whether the support they are offering is “purposefully integrated” within the wider curriculum being delivered (p25). There is now clearly an expectation that mentors will take an active role in helping the provider to deliver its central curriculum.

Given the introduction of the new ITE Core Content Framework and the increased emphasis on formative assessment in teacher training (see our previous blog post for more on this), bringing the mentor more explicitly into the curriculum-delivery-process seems logical. Instead of asking the trainees to try and make connections between the theoretical training curriculum and their practical classroom practice by themselves, mentors should be positioned to help bring the curriculum to life through dialogue with the trainee about the progress they are making in practice.

“Mentoring can be conceptualised as part of a practice curriculum in ITE, intersecting with more formal training, learning by direct experience of teaching (and associated tasks), personal reflection, study and assignment writing. Mentoring is one of the key learning opportunities offered to student teachers in their new workplaces, and itself supports the coverage of the relevant teacher training curriculum content.”

Rachel Lofthouse, from CollectivED’s ‘Special Edition: Advancing Mentoring  Practices 2018-19’, p13.

The Mentor and Target Setting

Not only should the mentor be seen as a key partner in ensuring coverage and application of the training curriculum. This repositioning of their role will naturally result in changes to target setting process too. Targets cannot be superficial or operational, but should be explicitly linked to the wider curriculum the trainee is expected to be progressing through.
Under the new framework, to be judged good or better, providers will have to be able to evidence the role that curriculum plays in the mentor target-setting process. “When targets are set for trainees, they: − are produced collaboratively between mentors and trainees − relate to programme content to be mastered and specific expertise to be developed − are adapted flexibly in response to trainees’ progress and needs, ensuring that agreed actions are implemented by all parties” (p43). For many mentors this will necessitate a change in target-setting style – away from informal or purely practical targets and towards targets deliberately consistent with the trainee’s wider learning.

This move to promote a more clear link between targets being set and the curriculum being taught is part of a wider trend towards ‘instructional coaching’ models of teacher training/CPD. This approach locates the practical support given to a teacher aiming to improve their classroom practice within a broader understanding (or curriculum?) of what good teaching looks like. We will discuss the benefits and challenges of an instructional coaching approach in more depth in a later blog post. 

“Instructional coaches help teachers improve student learning and well-being by improving teaching, so they must be able to clearly describe a set of teaching strategies teachers can use to hit their goals.”

Jim Knight, The Impact Cycle, p65.


There are some clear ways that the role of mentoring is changing and adapting with ITE (to keep step with the wider changes that are taking place). The heightened importance of the curriculum within ITE programmes, means that mentoring will have to evolve to better integrate with the wider programme aims. Along with this comes an imperative to change how target-setting is designed and managed to facilitate this.
But this shift will present challenges to providers. Many working in ITE will have very different memories of, and consequently ideas about, what good mentoring looks like (me included!) In light of this, providers are going to have to:
  • find ways to communicate these changes to their mentors, 
  • rethink how both existing and new mentors are trained to ensure they are able to act as that bridge between the curriculum and practice
  • consider what their mentors will need to easily and confidently incorporate the wider curriculum into the target-setting process
  • plan how best to monitor mentor engagement with and delivery of the curriculum.
The core challenge behind each of these bullet-points, however, will of course be how to do these things without increasing mentor or trainee workload.  The only way to do that will be to carefully design (or redesign?) course policies and procedures to ensure that the curriculum is not something bolted on, but weaved through all elements of the programmes training, materials and systems.

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