The White Paper - a final assault on university based teacher training

Richard Harris's picture

The latest White Paper ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’ is certainly ambitious and radical. I have no problems with being ambitious, nor with being radical when necessary, however I do worry when rhetoric and dogma are the dominant discourse.

Michael Gove, when Secretary of State for Education, and Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, have made it abundantly clear that they see little value in the role of universities in initial teacher education. This sentiment is manifest in the White Paper – in the section on initial teacher education, out of 63 paragraphs universities are barely mentioned – only paragraph 2.28 addresses their role but this feels like mere ‘bread-crumbs’.

There are positives within the paper, namely the desire to lengthen the period of training (which a number of university teacher educators have argued for previously), the call for evidence-based practice and the emphasis on the importance of subject knowledge and CPD for teachers.

Yet serious questions need to be asked about each of these and how they will be achieved.

Lengthening the period of training

At one level there is a practical issue about how will trainee teachers survive on little to no income. Many trainee teachers now receive no bursary to support them during their training and are entirely reliant on student loans to tide them over the current training year; if the period of training is going to be extended how will trainee teachers be expected to finance themselves?

The decision to remove the current system of awarding Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) for something more rigorous promises higher standards, but how will this operate now that universities no longer have oversight of these awards. Giving the power to schools is likely to fragment the system and throw up all sorts of issues relating to variation and consistency. Currently universities have a QA role but this is now seemingly removed. The answer in the White Paper is to give these powers to schools – many will be fine with this, but a conversation with an Ofsted inspector raised concerns about the proliferation of ‘loony’ SCITTs which do not understand some of the basic criteria for training courses (such as the requirement that trainee teachers need to spend time in at least two schools). There are also issues about how trainee teachers might transfer from a training course into employment if they have not attained a certain level of competence, or wish to move from one school to another whilst still training; the lack of a clear exit point for a training course makes this a potential problem. And what is the point of QTS anyway if academy heads have the power to decide ‘whether to make this accreditation a mandatory requirement or not’; it is easy to envisage a scenario where a secondary headteacher, desperate to get someone to teach in a shortage subject may waive the need for QTS but insist on it for other subjects, thus creating disparity.

Evidence-based practice

Surprisingly, given the nature of this point, universities are not mentioned. The new College of Teachers and the Education Endowment Fund are mentioned, but who will do this research to find out ‘what works’. If university education departments have an even more limited role in initial teacher education, how many are going to continue to exist. If they close, which has been a growing trend in recent years, expertise is going to be lost.

Subject knowledge and CPD

Subject knowledge is important, but is more than simply having an appropriate degree – it involves understanding the nature of the subject, the challenges it presents to students, knowing how to address those, understanding what is meant by progression within a subject and so forth. So any attempt to strengthen this is welcomed but the approach seems focused mainly on allowing schools to provide more training for themselves. As initiatives such as the London Challenge have shown, schools can do a huge amount to improve themselves through cooperation, but at the same time one of the important issues about development is the ability to think differently – there is the danger that inwardly generated CPD can be restrictive so there is a need to look more broadly for expertise, and university education departments have a huge amount of specialist subject knowledge.

The White Paper also throws up other questions. Apparently the very best universities will be given longer term allocations – this is positive in many ways but when will the ‘very best’ be decided seeing as Ofsted are so stretched at the moment they have been unable to complete their cycle of visits, and the growth of more SCITTs is only going to make this task more challenging? What happens to those deemed to be less than the very best, will they have time to develop and improve, or will they be closed down? One of the criteria for judging provision is the impact of trainee teachers on standards of teaching in schools – a laudable aim but which seems unlikely to be attained. Partly it places huge pressures on trainee teachers and raises questions about how they might be expected to influence practice widely in a school? Also a trainee who has been placed in a school is much more likely to be socialised into the practices of that environment (which has been extensively documented in research), so less likely to be able to influence or change the exiting practice within a school.

The discourse around university teaching training in recent years has been carefully manipulated to suggest it is not practical and it is not effective. The reality is that university-led teacher training is highly practical, students spend the vast majority of their time in schools, and evidence shows that it produces effective teachers. Far from the Marxist ‘blob’ of Gove’s imagination, the people I work with are passionate about what they do, are committed to high quality education for young people and want to produce excellent teachers. This White Paper appears to be the culmination of an assault on university involvement in teacher training, which seems hell-bent on undermining this important sector. 

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Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 28/03/2016 - 08:45

The changes to ITT proposed in the White Paper are insidious.  'We will also continue to increase the proportion of ITT offered by the best schools – those up-to-date with what works best in the classroom and with the keenest interest in maintaining rigorous ITT standards.'

This means that schools which adhere to Gibb's prejudices about 'what works best' will be licensed to train teachers but those that do not will be refused permission.   So Michaela Community School (a great favourite of Gibb) would have no difficulty being allowed to train teachers.  Its accounts 2014/15 says:

'The teaching staff always teach from the front, without group work and without so-called ‘interactive activities’. The teaching staff also undertake a lot of drilling and memorising.'

But schools where the sneered-at 'interactive activities' take place or whose pupils take part in group work may find it more difficult.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 01/04/2016 - 10:05

What Gibb regards as 'what works best', means with reference to schools, curriculum and exam boards within the behaviourist marketisation paradigm.

In 'Telling is not teaching and listening is not learning' I argue that this paradigm is seriously damaging the quality of education in our schools. This is absolutely 'Educational Lysenkoism' in action. See

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 28/03/2016 - 08:58

The Paper says ITT will focus on' helping new teachers enter the classroom with sufficient subject knowledge, practical behaviour management skills, understanding of special educational needs, and a greater understanding of the most up-to-date research on how pupils learn. We’ll ensure discredited ideas unsupported by firm evidence are not promoted to new teachers.'

Sounds good - teachers should have sufficient subject knowledge.  But where is the intellectual underpinning?  Teaching is an intellectual activity not just a practical one.  And while training in behaviour management skills is welcome, it can degenerate into mechancial 'tips for teachers'.    The proposed emphasis on learning how pupils learn is welcome but is neutered by the final sentence.  On paper this seems reasonable - who would want teachers trained in pseudoscientific methods such as Learning Styles?  But I suspect the 'discredited methods' which will not be promoted aren't such claptrap as Brain Gym but education theories which can't be 'proved' because they're ideas.  

Trainee teachers need to be introduced to great education thinkers. But preventing them by law from learning about education theories of which politicians (namely Nick Gibb) disapproves is the kind of political control seen in dictatorships.   Far from giving freedom to teacher educators, it prevents them from doing so.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 28/03/2016 - 09:18

'We will replace the current ‘Qualified Teacher Status’ (QTS) with a stronger, more challenging accreditation based on a teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom, as judged by great schools....The new process will put the best headteachers in charge of accrediting new entrants to the profession.'

A system which relies on the judgement of individual heads is not 'stronger' and 'more challenging'.  Where is the external validation?  The consistent standards?  And who are these 'great heads'?   The ability of politicians to spot 'great heads' has been knocked rather by findings that many of these exemplars, some knighted for 'services to education', have overseen academy trusts censured for the way finances have been managed:  Greg Martin, Peter Birkett, Liam Nolan, Patricia Sowter, Sajid Raza (on trial for fraud).  But all of these were highly praised by Michael Gove and others.

It's likely 'great heads' will be those who agree with policies initiated by Gove especially if they do so loudly (so much the better to get a gong, a seat on an 'advisory' body and high-profile publicity) and not those who argue, however articulately, against these education reforms.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 30/03/2016 - 15:44

Will teachers 'trained on the job' by their 'business manager' 'Executive Principals' understand that, 'Telling is not teaching and listening is not learning'


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