Does the NCTL and DfE really value teacher training and the role played by universities? I think not. Every time I hear platitudes about universities being important in the process I think back to what Nick Gibb, the current Schools Minister said in 2014: who is to blame for our education system slipping down the international rankings? The answer is the academics in the education faculties of universities … It is challenging the hegemony of the education departments of the universities that must be the focus of any serious education reformer. This appears to be driven by ideology rather than facts and current government policy is wrecking university involvement in teacher education, in an act of, Warwick Mansell has called, ‘ideological vandalism’ – it seems that Gibb is getting his way. The NCTL recently trumpeted that over half of all trainee teachers are on School Direct routes (which supposedly allow more time to be spent learning ‘on the job’). However this does not reflect a popular demand for School Direct places, instead it is the result of the way the government has distorted the way teacher training places are allocated. There is supposed to be choice for applicants wanting to be teachers based around market forces, but the reality is the government has skewed the market, placing caps on how many students universities are allowed to recruit, whilst setting minimum targets for schools and encouraging them to recruit above this target. This year has also been farcical. Instead of setting individual allocations for universities there was a national limit set on how many trainee teachers could be recruited in each subject/phase. This has meant instead of selecting the best candidates universities have been forced into the situation of trying to recruit as many trainee teachers as possible before the national limit was met, at which point all universities were instructed to halt all recruitment. This has proved ridiculous in many ways – if we look at the case of recruitment to history teacher training courses there are a number of issues:
- The call to stop recruiting came in before many courses, including Cambridge and Oxford, had been able to recruit anyone! These are flagship programmes. The NCTL did a mini-U-turn and has now allowed these and some other programmes the option of recruiting to 75% of their previous allocation to ensure they have some trainee teachers, but would this have happened if it hadn’t been Cambridge and Oxford?
- Recruitment to university based programmes had to stop within 3-4 weeks of applications starting. However School Direct recruitment has been very slow in contrast – when the recruitment to universities halted there were over 400 School Direct places available – if university based courses are so popular and in such high demand why on earth is the government restricting access to them!?
- Applicants may actually hold more than one offer currently. In such cases they will reject offers made by some universities; for example on my programme I was able to make 11 offers before the call to halt recruitment happened and to date four have accepted a place, two have rejected the offer to go elsewhere and five are undecided, so I could end up with between four and nine university based trainee teachers. If any decide to withdraw at a later date, the new NCTL requirements means I cannot recruit someone else to fill that place, nor am I allowed to have a reserve list. This makes financial planning and staffing incredibly difficult to manage.
- Some universities have already decided to withdraw from teacher training due to the ridiculous challenges caused by their policy making. This is destroying the collective wisdom of teacher trainers and subject specialist training. History education in England, despite what the government may say, is actually regarded highly around the world; many overseas governments look to utilise the expertise here, much of it centred in university teacher training courses. Instead of destroying this the government should be nurturing it!
- School based training is important in learning to teach, but students on PGCE courses spend at least 2/3 of their time in schools, and universities work closely with schools to provide strong training. There is a collective expertise in universities that is in danger of being lost. Everything we know about learning to teach shows that it is a highly complex process – it is not something you can pick up just ‘on the job’, trainee teachers need someone who understands this process deeply. Some schools are able to provide this but the primary job of schools is to provide an education for children and young people, providing time for those learning to teach requires a great deal of time, energy and expertise that schools can find challenging – it is nonsensical therefore that the government is pursuing policies that seem hell bent on destroying existing quality found in university teacher training.