A smiling Sarah Fitzjohn-Scott

Podcast: Catching up with Sarah Fitzjohn-Scott

Sarah, our Deputy Head of School (Partnership and Engagement), talks about her career and why Brighton is such a great place to train to teach. She also discusses how to make teacher training even more accessible.

​Listen to the podcast by clicking ‘play’ in the link below. Alternatively, most of the interview is transcribed on this page.

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Find out more about training to teach at the University of Brighton.

I’m responsible for our school partnerships, so right from our early year’s settings to our further education colleges. I’m responsible for the partnerships working with those members of staff in the schools and also the people in our school who work with the students out on their placements. I’m also responsible for safeguarding a number of other roles. I teach on performance arts modules as well.

We’ll get really into that in just a bit. If we rewind a little bit to what you were doing before you worked at the university because you were you were a teacher?

I was a teacher. I trained to teach at the University of Warwick and moved down here because I fell in love with Brighton when I came to work here one summer to a language school. This is the only place I really wanted to live, actually.

Where are you from originally?

Well, my parents live in Worcester. I moved around quite a lot when I was younger, but my parents still live here in Worcestershire in the Midlands, which is quite a good old journey when I go back up but it’s nice going back there. But my mum actually trained at the University of Brighton before it was a university and became a teacher here. So there is quite a legacy of education in our family. My mum was a head for a number of years, she was the head for over 30 years at different schools. But she always spoke so fondly about living in Brighton when she was training. So I kind of followed in her footsteps a little bit-moving down here after I qualified.

That is a nice story, does it feel quite strange to be here now heading up the several areas in the school of education?

That’s quite strange because what was a funny story that my mum doesn’t like me to tell is that she was nominated as sort of one of the students of the year when she was training back in the sixties to open one of the old school of education buildings. Since then, that’s all been knocked down and we’ve got new state of the art building. So when I told her the building that I worked in was being knocked down because it was decrepit and we were having new buildings, she said please don’t say that it was decrepit, that’s the building I opened.

So you worked in Brighton then as a teacher?

I did my NQT year in Sussex. I worked at Plumpton primary school just over the hill, just near Lewes. I absolutely loved it. That was a great place to start my career. We still have students going there now on their placement. So it’s really interesting to go back to the school sometimes. Then I applied rather cheekily for a promotion only just over two years into my role, and I moved to Middle Street Primary School. So it was really sad leaving Plumpton, but it was great going to Middle Streets, a very different school right in the centre of town and ended up becoming deputy head there fairly quickly afterwards when I was fairly soon in my career. I absolutely love teaching and I think that’s kind of demonstrated both by the effort I’ve put into over the years and I’m really privileged now actually training the next generation of teachers and helping them into the profession that I hold so highly and esteem.

So what made you decide to move into universities and teaching the next generation of teachers?

Well, at Middle Street and at Plumpton, I’d come into contact with student teachers and actually had some student teachers in my class that I mentored and helped them to hone their craft and work with them, giving them advice and feedback, modelling great teaching, but also learning a lot from them and what they were bringing from the university. I just happened to look on the university web page and there was a post advertised that looked like my dream job. And in fact, it was- it was a post for a lecturer in English and in drama. So I applied for it. Now, interestingly, I have to admit, now that this is the first job I did, which I wasn’t actually successful in getting, but they obviously saw my potential and asked me to join the team going into schools to give advice to students and to help them to progress and fairly swiftly after that somebody else from the English team retired. Another post was opened. I applied for it and was successful at that stage. So I had quite a gentle introduction to the university. It was almost like it was meant to be.

Yeah. So you are now teaching students that would like to become teachers. Do you sort of miss the frontline stuff at all?

Well, I mean I come into contact with lots of children and young people because I have my own children and we have quite a busy household where lots and lots of our friends are around. But also I’m very keen to keep my connections with schools. So after recording this today, I’m going into a local Brighton school. And later on this afternoon, I’m again going to another school in Sussex. I also am chair of governors at a Brighton school and on the board of trustees for a special school academy group. So I spend a lot of time children and young people. I think that I’m still using my skills as a teacher and also as a learner because you don’t stop learning. Yes, I miss it, but I think that I’m just doing things in different ways now.

The School of Education is one of our real success stories, consistently one of the best performing for teacher training in the UK. What’s the story, do you think, behind the success?

Oh, goodness. The story behind the success is the School of Education team. That’s the first thing the tutors, the staff, the professional support staff that work there. Every single person is absolutely committed to the success of those going into education, whether it be teacher training or an education degree with perhaps potential to move on to teacher training afterwards. Students are at the heart of everything we do. In addition to that, with that student success comes the pupil success in schools. So our kind of passion for learning and teaching is at the centre. I think that’s at the centre of the success we have really good partnerships with all of our schools. We work with over 600 schools and settings and our partnership area, runs from Rye in the east to Portsmouth and then up to south London. So when we draw students in for all of those from across the country, of course, but actually all of those areas, who Wished to stay at home too whilst they are training as well. We have really good communication with those schools, all of our schools buy into what we’re doing because they know we are extremely committed to ensuring that the students are the best teachers they can possibly be.

So it’s all based on great reputation. We’ve got Ofsted outstanding. It would be good more about the partnerships is to see how it works. Got great relationships with these schools. Vast area-placements are a huge part of teacher training here, there’s so many places for them to go?

Yes, there are. I mean on the university based training, they learn about what it’s like to be a teacher. They learn how to plan lessons, how to assess pupils. They learn the theory behind education. They increase their subject knowledge. But actually, when they’re out on their placements, when their on school based training, they’re putting that knowledge into practice. So they’re learning and then they’re learning really how to do it when they’re out there.

But the buy in we get from our partnership, from the schools, the reason that we’re able to place so many hundreds of students really successfully is because all the staff in schools also believe in training the next generation of teachers. They know we have to succession plan. They see the benefits of having those extra training professionals in their classrooms and enabling people success. So it’s a win win for everybody. And the trainees love it when they’re out in school. Absolutely love it.

That’s great, because not every industry has that attitude where they can take the next students on and be genuinely invested in how they get on and trying to help them to become a great teacher. Once they qualified it can be very competitive in other industries. So it is an area that needs recruitment?

Yeah. I mean, we need teachers. We need teachers nationally. There will always be a requirement for great teachers. There has been quite a lot in the press about turnover of teachers, but we also place quite a lot of importance within our training at the School of Education on ensuring that our trainees have the resilience to stay in the profession, to ensure that they can look after their health, their mental well-being, that they can prioritise their workloads in order that they remain successful. So many teachers who trained through us, I then see coming to our mentor training sessions because all of our students sat in schools have a mentor who is school based. I see so many of our former trainees or our former students coming back to be mentors because they want to give something back as they had when they were on school based training.

I guess when they go out into the schools, that’s their first experience of going back into a school, since they’ve been in one themselves as a student and they are seeing it from a very different perspective. Can that be a bit intimidating for some students to find out the realities of some of the work? We see a lot in the news, they worry about the pressures that teachers are under and I guess the problem is that they may is in the news a lot, isn’t it?

Well, I think firstly, we prepare our trainees for the realities of teaching. They know that it’s going to be hard work. It’s when they join either an undergraduate or postgraduate degree, sometimes they’re a little bit shocked by the number of contact hours in comparison to friends who are perhaps studying a more theoretical subject without the practical elements, because they gain two qualifications, of course, because they gain their degree or their post-grad, but also gain qualified teacher status. But we do prepare them. We don’t require anybody to have any school based experience before they come to us. But we invariably find that when our students want to go into a profession and want to rent teaching, they have engaged with children in schools either on work experience or in a volunteering capacity. As I said, we prepare them for their workloads and how to manage it. We prepare them for the fact that their day will be long. We expect them to be in school from eight to five.

There’s always something in the news as well about the number of people who are getting into teacher training. What do you think can be done to improve those numbers to encourage more people into teaching?

Well, if I just outline some of the support that we give to our trainees, they all have their personal academic tutor who guides them through their academic study, but also in preparation for their placement. They have their module tutors. We have a school based training leads. We have mentors in school. We have university tutors who go to visit. So their well-being and their progress is both scaffolded, supported and encouraged. I think that for those who are undecided about taking that step into teaching, I would just say that it is what you perhaps think you might lose in terms of time and commitment. You reap the rewards tenfold in the personal satisfaction that you get when you are helping young people to develop, not just in terms of their subject knowledge in their academic work, but then as a whole child building on the cultural capital, building on their interests and helping them to feel safe and happy to be in education. So for me, it’s a fantastic profession, perhaps for those people who are unsure but might like to try it. Maybe it’s a good idea if they can, to go and spend a bit of time in school because they’re happy places.

Yeah, definitely. Do you think that the roots are easy to get into teaching? If you decided later down the line that you’d like to become a teacher?

Well, we have our traditional undergraduate routes and our postgraduate routes. We also have apprenticeship routes into teaching and also schools direct salaried- you are paid while you work. Some of our secondary routes have bursaries and so there are different ways into teaching with some quite substantial levels of remuneration going into teaching. We’re also very, very keen to support our different groups of students. So where we might have a student who has young children, they have to get to nursery. We’re always really, really careful to place them so the nursery is on the way to their school based training. They don’t have particularly long journeys, you know, sort of 15, 20 minutes max. We make sure that we let them know in advance. You know, quite some time in advance in order for them to make appropriate childcare arrangements. So we also have particular support groups, so we have BAME mentoring programs. We have coffee meetings for maybe mature students or students or students who have caring commitments. So there’s lots of ways in which we enable that transition into the profession to be as easy as possible. I’m not saying it’s not hard work, but it’s as pain free as possible, I think.

We hear of job pressures a lot as a teacher, they’re then sometimes a focus on the drop-out rate of teachers, because of the pressures and targets that people have to meet and the amounts of work pass the classroom. If you are able just to advise the government, for example, and to say a way to change the culture. What would you do if you could sort of wave a magic wand?

If I could wave a magic wand, I would try to keep some of the overly negative stories out of the press. If I could wave a magic wand, I think that some of the reporting doesn’t help the profession to recruit and retain. However, there are big moves being made at the moment to support our new teachers, such as the early career framework, giving new teachers into the professions who are coming from university or teacher training elsewhere, giving them additional time, having the early support running over two years rather than one year. We have in the School of Education a huge commitment to our newly qualified teachers and our recently qualified teachers, we offer support, we offer and CPD. They can contact us at any point and we support students if they’re struggling with workload and work with the schools that they’re in as well. So I think over the past few years there’s been some major changes and now there’s going to be some major changes coming up, including workload reform that will enable teachers to remain successful and effective in the profession for much longer.

What is it that you love so much about teaching?

I don’t wish to sound cheesy. I’m going to. I’m really sorry. It’s about making a difference. It’s about seeing a child or a student at the first stages of learning and understanding and helping that. Not telling necessarily, but helping that development and watching them grow and intervening where you can to remove barriers to learning to the point where they can take their learning on themselves. It’s facilitating and guiding and it’s about enabling everyone to be successful in education for me. Not just a few are particularly gifted in a certain area or whether you have financial backing. It’s for all of those children the disadvantaged learners, those who are learning English for the first time in our schools, making sure that they are all supported and all have equal access to a great education.

Great. I mean Brighton were in the top 10 for education courses in England in the Times and Sunday Times. Good University Guide last year top 20 in the Guardian University League tables. So if you could sell the University of Brighton as the as the place for someone to come, what would be the big draw for you now?

I think, as I’ve said before, committed and passionate staff who care about every single student at every stage of their development, an incredibly successful partnership with our schools, where our schools are invested in those students being the best students they can possibly be. Brighton is a great place to live. It’s an absolutely fantastic place to live and to learn. That’s why I think that the University of Brighton and particularly the School of Education is a great place to study.

We end every podcast by asking some questions completely away from your work. We ask everyone the same questions. What advice would you give to your younger self?

Goodness me. Okay. I have learned over the years that whatever my deadline is, when I have something to work towards, to always make sure that if my first reaction is I need to start that three days beforehand to make sure I start it five days behind because life happens and some things get in the way or things pop up that you’re not you’re not sure about. So to give myself a bit of a longer lead in that, that’s advice that I would give my younger self and that I’m actually enacting now and it’s making my life a bit better.

If you could pick a completely different subject to study at the University of Brighton, what would it be? And it doesn’t necessarily mean you have the skills to do it.

Fine art. I did art A-level and absolutely adored it. My daughter’s taking art A-level now and she’s got an easel set up in her room and I feel a little pang of jealousy!

Can you pick a favourite place in Sussex?

Okay. Now this is probably a favourite place that so many people choose. But I would say the beach, now I love to go to lots of different places on the beach in Sussex. I love clomping way down the coast in West Sussex. I love. I love Hove lawn because it holds great memories for me taking my children when they were younger. But I guess the beach is a place for me where I can go in any weather and it’s still exciting, whether it’s the sunshine in the summer or whether the waves are crashing over. It’s relaxing and I also love people watching and what a great place to go to beach, to people watch and nobody can see behind sunglasses either in the summer.

If you could give visitors to Brighton and the area a tip of what to do or experience what would you suggest?

Okay. So I would start my day by going up to devil’s Dyke and having a walk and looking at the fantastic views. Then I’d hop on an open top bus coming all the way down through Brighton and I would get off and have a wonder down the beach and then go along to the Pier. I don’t ever spend too long in the Pier, It’s kind of loud, it is a great place to go, and particularly if you’re taking friends with them and their families. I’d then go to Terre a Terre because that is just the most superb vegetarian food, and I’d finish off the day at the plotting parlour cocktail bar because I love it.

Tell us something interesting about you, which most people may not know.

Okay, so not everybody knows that I love singing, although if you stop next to me at the traffic lights and I’ve got the windows wound down, you might have heard me because I tend to sing quite loudly in the car. So I love singing. I’ve broken my nose several times. I’m quite accident prone. I have to be quite careful. I actually fell down the stairs the other day and finally, I have a cross stuffy whippet dog called Bruce.

And finally, if you could invite three people to dinner, past or present, who would they be and why?

The first person I would invite and I was very sad that she died not so long ago would be Maya Angelou because her poetry fills me with joy and she is a strong woman who overcame huge amounts of personal difficulty. And yes, I admire her greatly. The second person is a little bit flippant and it would be Kirstie Allsopp because I’d like some free advice on how to declutter some of my cupboards and how he build a utility room into the back of my house. The final person would be a suffragette and an unsung suffragette by the name of Annie Kenny. So that’s interesting, I’d invite three women to my dinner party, but that’s what I do.

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