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PGCE or School Direct?

The two main postgraduate routes into teaching are Postgraduate Graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) and School Direct, but which one is right for you? Let’s look at the two routes, explore the differences between them and hear first-hand from teachers what they are like.

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If you already have a degree, you can choose between a number of routes into teaching. Two of the main routes are PGCE and School Direct, both are one-year courses that see you train for a minimum of 24 weeks working in schools – this will be split across two schools, working towards Qualified Teacher Status (QTS). QTS is the professional qualification for teachers. It is required to teach in state-run primary, secondary and special schools. The entry requirements for PGCE and School Direct are the same, both require you to have at least a GCSE grade C in Maths and English, and in Science for primary, and 2.2 or above in any undergraduate degree.

Trainee maths teacher and two pupils work at the whiteboard


PGCE is university-led, with training located in both school and university. The university, not the school, oversees the curriculum for the trainees. Trainees go on teaching placement within schools for around two-thirds of the year. During this time, you are in school from Monday to Friday, nine to five. The other third of your time is spent in university developing the knowledge to teach successfully, developing an understanding of topics such as inclusion, behaviour management, planning, assessment, approaches to learning and teaching and current issues in education. Trainees also cover the broad subject knowledge needed to teach their specialism, typically learning in mock classroom environments that are set up with all the equipment found in a regular classroom. PGCE combines an academic focus and school placements with getting to experience wider university life.

School Direct

School Direct enables trainees to learn on the job as you’re in school gaining practical teaching experience from day one. It is school-led and school based. You’ll be in a school setting the whole academic year however, you’ll go to university from time to time, maybe a day a week, to study teaching and to get your subject knowledge up to speed. You won’t cover as much subject knowledge as PGCE trainees do as you have the opportunity to do that in your school. The school, not the university, oversees the curriculum for the trainees. School Direct sometimes awards a PGCE qualification too, but this varies depending on the training provider, so you’ll want to check if this is the case and whether there is a cost for the PGCE.

There are two routes within School Direct – salaried and tuition fee.

The School Direct salaried route is for candidates who already have some very relevant transferable experience, usually from working in a school. You won't need to pay for tuition fees. You'll earn an unqualified teacher’s salary, which starts at £18K, while you train. In practice there are relatively few School Direct salaried places out there and they tend to be in the shortage subjects such as chemistry, computing, maths, and physics.

The School Direct tuition fee route is led by a school, or group of schools, that work closely with a university. You have to pay tuition fees on this route.

In terms of funding, bursaries and student finance are not open to trainees on the School Direct salaried route. They are if you do a PGCE or take the School Direct tuition fee route. In those cases you can apply for student finance to cover your tuition fees and cost of living, and potentially for teacher training bursary too (if one is available for your subject).

What is the difference between PGCE and School Direct?

In many ways, your teacher training experience will be similar with PGCE and School Direct as both combine substantive in-school-training supported by intensive study of how to teach.

At first glance it’s tricky to tell what the differences are so we asked Julie Stevens, PGCE course leader and School Direct Lead at Plymouth Marjon University, to explain: ”The support around the trainee is different for PGCE and School Direct. School Direct is best suited to trainees who can work on their own initiative. It is great for independent self-starters who already have some work experience in education and schools, people who already know enough to hit the ground running. PGCE trainees tend to come straight from university, or they might have had a year out, but they need much more structure and more subject knowledge.

"I'm a tutor for our School Direct partners so we often interview together to work out what is going to work best for the candidate. If I think they haven't got much experience then they're going to need a lot more structure, so we’d say come to us for a PGCE. If they're flying already, they know a lot about teaching and learning and have school experience, then they may be more suited to a School Direct route. They’ll still get support from the university but they are ready to go into school”.

School Direct can be a good option for trainees who would like to work at their placement school once they are qualified. While this is not guaranteed, schools will often take trainees on in subjects where they know they have a shortage or they anticipate that someone is leaving, so there is sometimes a chance of a job at the end.

Likewise with School Direct you’re part of the school team as you’re there most of the time, so you’re that bit more integrated and well positioned to find out about job openings.

When choosing between PGCE and School Direct ask the various training providers about whether subject knowledge enhancement (SKE) courses are available, and any associated costs. SKE courses can either be used to update your knowledge of your core subject or to add a second string to your bow.

Back to Julie to explain how SKE courses can make trainees more employable: “Subject knowledge enhancement is all about employability. When my trainees are secure in the core subject they want to teach, they might then think about doing another subject. Take PE teachers for example, there are many PE teachers, all competing for the same jobs. If a PE teacher can also offer a shortage subject like maths, science, or languages, and they have some experience of teaching it in school, they’ll have more to offer the school than just the one subject. It makes them way more employable”.

What to expect on teaching placement

Teaching placements are fundamental to both PGCE or School Direct. They are carefully structured to gradually take you from trainee to teacher as the year progresses. This is how it works:

  • Class observation. You start out by sitting in on the classes you will soon be teaching so you can get to know the pupils and see the dynamics of how they work together.
  • Teacher observation. You watch expert teachers so you can see how they deal with things like behaviour, questioning, instructing, assessments, and working with teaching assistants.
  • Pupil pursuit. You follow a pupil for a day to see first-hand how they experience all their different subjects and teachers.
  • Team teaching. The class teacher begins the lesson, you teach a section of the lesson and then the teacher wraps it up.
  • Solo lessons. You are responsible for the class. The class teacher is present but only steps in if you ask for help, or if they feel the need to. If you're teaching secondary school then your first solo teaching class will likely be with Year 7 and you’ll observe the older year groups for longer before teaching them.

Get the inside track

Daisy Briggs is an Art and Design teacher who completed a PGCE at Plymouth Marjon University. We asked her why she picked PGCE over School Direct, and how it turned out. Over to Daisy...

"I picked PGCE over School Direct because I liked the fact that placements were separated by university study time. This meant that there was plenty of time for reflection in between placements which I think helped me to understand my areas for development going into the second placement. It also helped me with my nerves in relation to going into schools, especially as someone starting teacher training with no prior school experience.

"Going into uni before the first placement helped me to prepare for school life and clearly understand the expectations for me as a trainee once I was on placement.

"PGCE is great because you get to know others on the course and can benefit from sharing experiences and feel you have a diverse network of support from other students and lecturers. It's also great to have gained the Master's credits that come with completing the PGCE as I feel I have the option of using these in the future. Once you're in the career of being a teacher there is a huge focus on continued personal development and a completing full Master’s is something I may explore in future.

"The only drawback I can think of is with placements, you only get a relatively short time in school and so you don't get a complete picture of school life and the whole school year. It's also slightly more challenging as you aren't introduced to students in September, when they are used to meeting new teachers and this can make it harder to set expectations and build relationships."

Michael Johnson is a primary teacher who trained with School Direct and Plymouth Marjon University. We asked him why he picked School Direct over PGCE, and how it turned out. Let's find out...

“I chose School Direct because I was used to being in school. Also, as you are in school from day one, everyone treats you as a member of staff. School Direct allows reduced contact with classes at the start of the course, around 50% before slowly increasing to 60% and 75%. This supported my workload and progression.

"There were clear set times for placement then other times focused on university work and subject knowledge. Another positive thing with School Direct was that my placements were not far from where I live, meaning my commute was never more than 30 to 40 mins. 

“There are only a couple of drawbacks of School Direct relative to PGCE, such as not receiving as much support and contact time with university and tutors, which for me was further impacted by training during Covid-19. Plus in the first term it felt that PGCE students had more time to focus on their assignments whilst we were planning and delivering lessons as well as studying.”

In conclusion, you need to think about yourself and which route is right for you. You can rest assured that employers do not look more favourably on any one route over the others, as they all lead to the same qualification. However, they may ask you why you chose the route you did versus the other in an interview so it’s helpful to do your research so you can speak clearly if this ever does come up.


Looking for a course? Plymouth Marjon University offers the following PGCE and School Direct courses:

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