Everyone remembers their favourite teacher; the subject they taught and their infectious enthusiasm. At the Astra Learning Alliance, members of staff from DCGS and other schools and partners in the local area are dedicated to cultivating those experiences by providing learning experiences in the local community, with over 50 schools and seven partners, including higher education institutes such as the Institute of Education (UCL) and the Bucks New University.

One of the main ways Astra achieves this is through its School Centred Initial Teacher Training (SCITT) programme. Having trained 47 teachers last year (with many now working in primary and secondary schools in Bucks) in subjects including Physical Education, Physics, Maths and English, the trainees are able to gain Qualified Teacher Status with or without a PGCE.

The Astra Teaching School has also been recognised by the Department for Education as an Appropriate Body for Newly Qualified Teachers, which oversees the induction and support of new teachers across Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire. This is led by Mrs Stephanie Rodgers, who is the Director of the Astra SCITT, Assessment Only & NQT Appropriate Body (and also an Assistant Headteacher at DCGS with responsibility for pupil premium). She helps DCGS stay at the forefront of education and up to date with the latest developments in the sector, with a clear and powerful moral purpose.

Speaking to this year’s teacher training cohort revealed how challenging and supportive the SCITT programme is and how ultimately the trainees are finding it a great way to gain their teaching qualification. Having just started their placements, this year’s trainees are at an exciting point in the journey to teaching and were extremely enthusiastic about their experience and training. When asked about Astra, one trainee said, 'I enquired about getting some work experience at Dr Challoner's Grammar School, as I knew one of the teachers there. I went in for two weeks and got to know the PE department really well and observed some outstanding lessons. This reinforced to me that teaching was exactly what I wanted to do.' This praise of both the programme and Challoner’s itself is consistent throughout the responses and the mentoring provided by the programme was also highlighted as a key strength by the trainees.

I had heard really positive feedback from past trainees about how well organised (SCITT) was and how well supported you are through the duration of the course.

Challoners’ Mr Lee Hamill was particularly appreciative of the mentoring provided by Astra. He spoke about the careful balance between mentors being there to provide extra support when it was needed, but then stepping back when trainees were thriving. This meant that his training gave him the confidence to go out and re-immerse himself in Biology, as well as share that passion with the students who were lucky enough to have him. This was reinforced by Mrs Karen Whitby who described the mentors as 'phenomenal' and said, 'I don’t think I could have done it without that guidance and support.'

By being ‘school-centred’, the QTS programme puts its trainees in the environment that they aspire to work in, and one trainee described the experience as 'tiring, terrifying, exciting, challenging' while also valuing the placement aspect of the programme and its strong links to the classroom as 'the only way to learn'. Another trainee shared their appreciation for this approach and said, 'It gets me used to the day to day life of how the school runs.' It seems like Challoners’ involvement in the SCITT programme is extremely beneficial to all involved.

It helps mould me into being a better teacher than if I had been in a University full time.

As well as providing initial teacher training, the Astra Learning Alliance also provides Continuing Professional Development (CPD). This means that once trainees achieve their qualifications, there are still plenty of opportunities for them to grow and develop within the programme that got them into the teaching profession. One of the ways in which the programme provides this is by offering the chance for experienced teachers to become Specialist Leaders in Education (SLEs). Mr Duggan is one of the Challoner’s staff members who has recently earned this impressive title. His work as the Key Stage 3 Team Leader and his pastoral duty to the students inspired him to pursue this status with respect to behaviour and discipline. He commented positively on the collaborative nature of the course and the opportunity for the trainees to share and contribute their own ideas. The process was engaging and a great way to share ideas with teachers who have similar aspirations in their careers. Other CPD options include training to become a mentor to support future trainees.

The SLE element of Astra relates to its other main contribution to education in Bucks as an SLE can be deployed to various schools requesting help in different areas, as part of the School to School Support programme. Both this aspect of the alliance and the CPD are overseen by Mrs Priggs, who is the Director of the Astra Teaching School Alliance (as well as being an Assistant Headteacher at Challoner's). This collaborative aspect of the programme is an amazing way for Challoner’s to cooperate with other schools in Bucks.

The Astra Alliance is part of the Teaching Talent Network and allows the teaching school to maintain its own ethos. By maintaining this autonomy, the programme is able to remain unique and focused on what values it personally deems important. Therefore, Astra can focus specifically on the needs of schools in Bucks and concentrate on providing support that is appropriate to the demands of the area, as well as consistent with the community's values.

The Astra Learning Alliance is invaluable to Challoner's and the wider education community. Aspiring teachers are able to learn in a dynamic and confident environment that strives to support its students to reach their potential, and the school itself is constantly being exposed to new teaching ideas and is able to make sure it is providing the students with one of the best learning experiences possible.