Why the white paper has got it wrong on teacher training

John Yandell's picture
I spent the day of the publication of the white paper interviewing applicants for the PGCE course on which I teach. These days run to a well-worked pattern. They start with an introduction to the course, then a group task, and finally the individual interviews. The introduction to the course was a little trickier than usual, as I had to explain that the only definite outcome of the day would be a rejection: we simply are not in a position to offer places for 2011-12, because we don’t know whether there will be a course at all, and, if there is, how many places there might be on it.

There’s nothing unique about this. We are in the same position as every other PGCE course in the country – and our position is symptomatic of much of the public sector. We know cuts are coming, we know our jobs are at risk, but we don’t know when or where the axe will fall. So it’s an occupational hazard, and I’m not looking for sympathy. But whether this is a rational way of organising the training and supply of teachers, or whether this is a fair way of treating potential entrants to the teaching profession, are different matters. And it’s not at all clear how the collapse of strategic planning will aid the present government in their professed goal of raising the quality of such entrants.

Part of the introduction that I give involves showing the applicants a plan of the year-long course. At a glance, they can see that two-thirds of their time will be spent in school. Some of our applicants were aware of the white paper’s promise to “reform initial training so that more training is on the job.” They were, understandably, a bit puzzled. What the course currently looks like doesn’t quite fit Gove’s caricature of teacher education, as if it were accomplished in some “teaching training college” remote from the realities of the contemporary classroom.

The white paper is keen on the idea of recruiting “more of the most talented people to the profession.” So am I. But I’m less confident that talent is reducible to the class of degree that an applicant has. And I’m even less sure that talent, whatever that means, is so easily measurable at the point of entry into initial teacher education. One of the wonderful things about the cohorts of PGCE students whom we have recruited, year after year, is their diversity. Different trainees bring different things to the course and to teaching – different enthusiasms within their subject, different experiences of teaching in other contexts, different life experiences, languages, cultures, histories. And in recent years, our cohort of students has come to represent something closer to the diversity of the London classrooms in which they spend most of their training year.

As part of my introduction to the course, I issue a health warning. I explain that, in applying to do a PGCE, the interviewees have opted for one of a number of possible routes into teaching. Other routes might be underpinned by a conception of teaching as a craft, best acquired solely or largely through practice; in contrast, the PCGE offers an understanding of teaching as simultaneously practical and theoretical. Everything that teachers do, day by day in the classroom, is informed by theory. Theory matters – it makes a difference to how teachers act and how learners learn – and so we expect our students to take an interest in, to find out more about and to be relentlessly critical of, the ways in which practice is theorised.

The white paper’s enthusiasm for “on the job” training stems directly from Michael Gove’s hopelessly inadequate conception of what is involved in teaching. He started by describing it as a craft; now he has responded to the criticism that teachers are not plumbers or hairdressers by providing another analogy. Surgeons, he claims, learn their trade in the operating theatre, working alongside and assisting more experienced colleagues. So should teachers. I don’t disagree, at least not entirely. But let’s examine this analogy a little further. First, quite a lot of surgeons’ training happens elsewhere. In some medical schools, they still use cadavers; in others, the corpses have been replaced by computer simulations. It’s a little hard to see how these aspects of a surgeon’s training could be replicated in teaching, partly because surgery is, very largely, sophisticated, high-stakes plumbing. Surgeons operate on one body at a time, and the body in question is generally fairly passive. Colleagues of mine are involved in some very interesting research, looking at the complexity of the interactions – and the learning – that is accomplished in the operating theatre. But the interactions are among groups of professionals (surgeons, nurses, anaesthetists, and all the technologies that they deploy). The role of the lay person – the patient, or customer in more fashionable jargon – is a pretty inert one. In the classroom, on the other hand, there are really quite a lot of customers – generally up to thirty at any one time. And each of them is involved in myriad of interactions, with each other and with the teacher. These interactions are not separable from the learning that goes on – they are the very stuff out of which learning is accomplished. And that is precisely why making sense of what happens in any classroom is highly complex. Making sense of this and intervening effectively in it, minute by minute and lesson after lesson, demands a great deal of very impressive professional judgement.

Gove sees teacher training as the acquisition of the craft of the classroom by those who have already developed their subject knowledge elsewhere. In his paradigm, subject knowledge (knowing about geometry or Dryden) is neatly separable from pedagogy. It’s not. And that’s the whole point about theory. If you’re going to teach a fairly simple part of mathematics – place value, say – it’s not enough that you understand how place value works. You have to be able to make sense of your students’ misconceptions about place value, and you have to be able to work with their (different, sometimes inadequate but always significant) models of place value. Things become even more complex in my own subject area of English. It’s all very well for a teacher to know a thing or two about Shakespeare, say, or to have some well-honed interpretations of Othello or Romeo and Juliet or The Merchant of Venice. But texts that are so fundamentally implicated in questions of family and honour, group and individual identity, and so on, cannot be explored in the classroom with out some fairly careful consideration being given to the school students’ own ideas on these questions; and neither can these ideas be neatly separated from the learners’ values, experiences, cultures and histories. The teacher’s capacity to engage with what the learners bring to such texts, and the meanings that are made, collectively and dialogically in the classroom, just is not reducible to how much subject knowledge the teacher might have acquired at some time in the past. Teachers need theory because knowledge is made and remade in the classroom – it isn’t simply delivered, like a sack of potatoes. And school children are not the recipients of teaching in the same way that patients might be considered to be the recipients of surgery.

What are schools for? The white paper offers a variety of answers to this question, but the tone is set, very clearly, in the foreword by Cameron and Clegg. The dominant metaphor is that of a race. “What really matters,” we are told, “is how we’re doing compared with our international competitors” – and the problem is that “we are standing still while others race past.” Competition matters, it would appear. Presumably that’s why the white paper envisages a future in which each school stands alone, answerable only to the Department for Education, and thus in competition with each other school. What gets missed out of this picture is all the stuff that schools are actually remarkably good at doing, most of the time – the processes of socialisation that go hand in hand with learning together. What also becomes erased is any sense that schools might be accountable to the communities that they serve.

This absence is linked to the white paper’s preoccupation with behavior. Its starting point is that behaviour is a problem, one that discourages the best of the best of the best from even applying to train to be a teacher. Of course, there’s a grain of truth in this. When I ask PGCE applicants about the challenges that they foresee in working in London schools, most mention something about behaviour. I’ll come back to this, but first let’s look at the solutions that the white paper offers. Teachers are to be given new powers to search, restrain and detain their pupils. (Maybe this is the part that the new recruits, the products of the white paper’s Troops into Teachers programme, will be specially trained for.) Underlying this approach is a fear of youth and an old-fashioned Tory emphasis on “a culture of discipline and respect.” Teachers’ authority will be reestablished through the strengthening of their disciplinary powers. And the white paper trumps New Labour’s fondness for uniform with its insistence on proper, traditional uniforms – blazers and ties.

Will this work? It will undoubtedly enforce the divide between teachers and pupils, between schools and the world beyond the school gates. (Included in the white paper’s list of items that teachers might wish to search for and confiscate from their students are phones and cameras. In the world outside, these are powerful resources for communication, for meaning-making, for cultural production. In school, these are to be construed as dangerous. How sad. Will it make the experience of schooling richer and more fulfilling? Will it do anything to diminish the feelings of alienation that already tend to be produced by the thin gruel of test-led curricula? Will it even enable teachers to teach better and students to learn more and more effectively? No.

One of the people I interviewed on the day that the white paper was published talked of his anxieties about classroom management. While working in the City, he had done some voluntary work at an after-school club at a school in Hackney. His encounters there with young people who were not always responsive to authority figures might have fuelled his anxiety. But actually what it had done was to make him realise the futility of quick fixes – and the absolutely fundamental importance of building relationships over time. If we still have a PGCE course next year, he’ll be on it.
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