PGCE vs NQT: Which one’s tougher?

I can finally exhale- it’s the Easter holidays.

Is what you told yourself when you heard the final bell and made a beeline to your local to exchange stories, to drown sorrows, with fellow trainee teachers.

No more 400 page lesson plans, you told yourself. No more hypercritical mentor constantly telling you how bad you’re doing, and no more tedious university sessions.

But then suddenly, as if by being poked in the spine with an icy finger, you remember that 5000 word essay: the one you haven’t started yet. The one that’s in on the first Tuesday back. You hang your head with demoralisation. Will it always be like this? Surely, the NQT year is easier than this?

In my experience, a narrow majority of teachers will say that their most difficult teaching year was . . . wait for it . . . their PGCE/training year.  However, as there are a myriad of vacillating thoughts on the matter, the aim of this blog is to provide you with the main issues and popular opinions on these. Hopefully you will gain enough insight in order to make up your own mind . . . or not! Throughout the discussion that follows, ask yourself – Which challenge would I prefer to take on?


Your mentor

The number of PGCE students who unnecessarily struggle with the course, hate the course, or outright drop out of the course because of an abrupt-hypercritical-control-freak-bully of a mentor is high enough for us all to feel uncomfortable. On the plus side, this problem largely disappears when you are an NQT. You see, some teachers view trainees as a potential liability and can therefore get a bit controlling, particularly as they are still responsible for the achievement of the class. An NQT on the other hand, has their own classes, their own tenure, and so is not seen as someone who has the potential to step on teachers’ toes. Many who argue the NQT year as easier give this better treatment as a reason.

Assignments and folders

The assignments will be comfortably gone; slam-dunked through the hole they left in your soul. However, while it is nowhere near as onerous as the PGCE folder, many schools require NQTs to complete a pesky portfolio of evidence. And, this is in addition to all of the other bureaucratic tasks which teachers are forever lumbered with. So on the whole, while the paperwork is gone, it definitely isn’t left for dead. In spite of this, most people who argue that the NQT year is easier often cite the lack of assignments as the critical mass that determined their decision.

The holidays are yours

Continuing from the above, unless you end up at one of those toxic academies that holiday-revision-session the shit of you, this is a no brainer. You really can relax without worrying about the 5000 word essay. Again- this too forms part of the aforementioned critical mass.

 A full timetable

The assignments and folders will be gone but they will replaced with the most tiring thing discovered by humanity: a full teaching timetable. Whilst assignments can be irritating, the good thing about them is that you can largely go about them at your own pace:  whether it’s on a Sunday in your pyjamas or on a Wednesday in your uni library, it’s your call. This is a privilege that the workload of a full teaching timetable does not grant you and adjusting to this is going to be your greatest challenge. Your body and mind will take a beating during the day, then your mind will take a further beating in the evenings; often until very late as it is common for NQTs to plan their lessons in the same detail as in their PGCE year. You will experience the kind of fatigue which you have never known of; as an NQT I once fell asleep on the speaker at a night club in the last week of the Christmas term. (Yes, the speaker was blaring music and no, I had not had any alcohol whatsoever!) Teachers who argue that the NQT year is the more difficult one, often cite this as the sole reason. (My book extensively discusses how to maintain high energy levels as a teacher).  

You’re on your own

As a trainee you are most likely protected from a lot. If we gave you the really difficult classes, made you attend progress panel meetings, or even shared one too many horror stories with you, you’d run a mile. And you’d be well within your rights to do so. Only an irretrievably stupid or extremely malicious boxing coach would put a novice in the ring with Anthony Joshua. Thing is, now you’re not a novice; you decided to teach, so teach you shall. And this may be difficult without the support which you could have come to depend on. In short, some teachers prefer the independence and so find the NQT easier, but others long for the support so find the PGCE easier: Apples and oranges.

In conclusion

Both the PGCE and NQT present their own unique set of challenges. You cannot know for certain which one will be easier for you but if you can anticipate the coming challenges, you can decide which ones you know you’d prefer, and which ones you will try and do something about before September. The better question, I think, is What are the new challenges and how will I overcome them? It reminds me of the movie Million Dollar Baby, when boxer Maggie, who during a  hard fight complains to her coach Frankie, who replies: ‘Cause she’s a better fighter than you are, that’s why. She’s younger, she’s stronger, she’s more experienced. Now, what are you gonna do about it?’

million dolar baby

What are you gonna do about it?


By Omar Akbar

For more advice and guidance check out The Unofficial Teacher’s Manual: What they don’t teach you at training college. Available on Amazon £6.75/£3.99

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