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.
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.