With Tom Bennett giving evidence to the Carter Review of Initial Teacher Education here and here, which I hadn’t realised was forging ahead so quickly, I thought I probably ought to finally get round to writing a blog post that has been gestating in my head for a while. I don’t think it terribly likely that it will have any impact on the review process – although you never know which significant person might stumble upon it and find a fresh perspective helpful – so this is more about marshalling my own thoughts about the job I’ve been doing for a year now than pretending I have any influence.
I came out of the classroom and into ITT at what might well be termed “interesting times”. Although I think 30 million deaths will be avoided, there have been, and will be some more, HEI tutors looking for new jobs as ITT becomes increasingly unappealing (mainly for financial reasons) to the VCs of many universities. So far I think Bath, Keele, and OU have gone and Loughborough have jettisoned everything except PE. Leeds just got an Ofsted Grade 3 so must be worried, and I’ve heard that several other Russell Group PGCEs are hanging by a thread. However there are loads of HEIs delivering PGCE courses (possibly too many) so the demise of a few may not matter for children and schools but it definitely does matter when reviewing ITT because a background of declining funding, staff cuts, and increased workload for those who are left, isn’t the best starting point for improving the HEI side of things.
So does that mean that the road to glory lies with the School Direct (SD) model and/or School Centred Initial Teacher Training (SCITT)? The university I work for adopted SD early and keenly, on the back of a very successful Graduate Teacher Programme (GTP), so I have had a good chance to look at this option, warts and all. In terms of time in the classroom, SD does have more because it starts at the beginning of September and finishes at the end of July, whereas a typical HEI PGCE starts a week or two later and finishes before the end of June. If there was evidence that this was helpful then there would be nothing to stop HEIs from running their final placement until the end of term as well, except that they would almost certainly have to pay schools more and as noted above, money is a problem. Actually this isn’t the main difference between SD and a traditional HEI course, there are two differences that are much more significant.
Firstly, with an HEI course, there is a good opportunity in the first placement to make some fundamental errors and be nervous, uncertain, and moderately ineffective, before moving to the longer second placement, leaving those mistakes behind, and starting afresh. There is also the option of moving trainees during the longer placement if a mentor, department, or some other issue results in a stagnation of progress. Matching trainees to placements is really hard to get right and the variation in mentoring style (some nuture, others pull no punches) and department (some have detailed SoW, others expect teachers to design their own) means that sometimes a good trainee just fails to find a fit. With SD, although there is a short second placement, trainees really only get the one experience, and if the relationships with either classes, or mentors, don’t get off to a good start, those problems have to be fixed in situ. The GTP worked because the trainees were generally very robust and the small numbers meant that it was easier to ensure a good fit; SD trainees are not the same. Where the fit with the school is good, SDs get a great experience, but some don’t and that’s when the limited options become apparent.
Secondly, whilst some SDs have used a model whereby the trainees train alongside the HEI trainees, a lot of SD courses have most of the training in schools (the HEIs mostly focusing on the Master’s level work for PGCE). In the end, this was surely the intention of SD; to get trainee teachers out of the clutches of “those who can’t teach…” and who fill their heads with ‘progressive nonsense’, and into the clutches of successful schools who would ‘train them properly’. A lot of Teaching Alliances and Teaching Schools are doing a great job with essential training in e.g. SEN, PSHE, safeguarding, talking to parents, data etc. and classroom practice e.g. lesson planning, differentiation ideas, assessment. Some, unfortunately are delivering good basic training but then thinking it’s all done and not pushing trainees once their teaching is satisfactory. Some are also doing a great job with behaviour management training but I’m afraid that some are not. Only a few are providing training that involves engaging with research, and high quality subject-specific training is a real problem. The behaviour management training is a problem where the school doesn’t have a strong, all-encompassing grip themselves – either because they don’t have to (sufficient levels of leafiness) or because it’s handled mainly at department level – or I’m afraid that some teachers who should know better default back to their own PGCE experience and pass on the things that were education orthodoxy some time ago because they don’t feel confident enough to rate their own experience more highly. Even where the training is very good, they still don’t get much chance to try things out with different kids or under a different school system because they are based in just one school. The subject-specific problem is just a reflection of very small cohorts e.g. two science trainees, so this has to be done in departments and is often ad hoc (or non-existent). This is definitely the biggest issue of which SD trainees are aware; a barrage of questions about how to teach x, y, and z plus “how do we get more of this?” is the typical response to the two or three subject-specific sessions I did with SDs this year. Finally, the engagement with research is just lack of expertise in schools. The big alliances do have the funding to bring in some expertise but most SD is done in-house by people with other responsibilities and only a handful are getting to grips with research as teachers, in the ResearchED mould.
Finally. nothing to do with the quality of training but shifting 50% of ITT from HEI to SD is creating a recruitment crisis. This is a partly a fragmentation problem, and partly a selection problem. The first issue is just that if you take a fixed number of potential teachers and present them with a lot more training choices, they get spread more thinly. This matters because they don’t spread evenly. (Whilst mentioning fragmentation, the administration burden of SD has nearly finished off some schools, who now have to do all the UCAS work, dozens of interviews, and all sorts of things that HEIs do but without the benefits of scale). The second, more serious issue, is the number of potential teachers that I have seen who are being rejected by schools but would have made perfectly good, if not instantly outstanding, teachers, and the odd dodgy one that somehow gets chosen. I think schools are better at choosing NQTs to fit their school, than identifying trainees with potential.
So was SD a mistake – was all rosy in the HEI graden?
No, there are problems here too. The charge that “those who can’t teach, teach teachers” is way out of line but it is true that a number of my colleagues haven’t taught children for a long time. I can see a scenario in which this wouldn’t matter if there was really good and effective collaboration between very experienced tutors, deeply engaged with an overview of relevant research, and very effective teachers with a vice-like grip on behaviour management and effective classroom practice, with the two things feeding into each other, but at the moment the divide between theory and practice is too big. We do get people in from local schools, for example all the early BM training is done this way, but although these people know exactly what they’re talking about, it’s too remote from practice and doesn’t follow through into placements. I have a suspicion that there are some examples of excellent collaborations out there (I don’t know first hand but if the Carter Review doesn’t speak to Michael Fordham and the other Cambridge history mentors I think they will have missed a trick). It seems so obvious that the best ITT would come from really great collaboration between HEIs and effective teachers in effective schools, that it is worth looking at why this isn’t happening more. The first issue is that research-led universities have other priorities. The best academics have to make an effort if they want to engage with the PGCE, it’s not the default position, and even if they did, many have very specific research interests that might not be relevant to training new teachers. From the other end, PGCE tutors are a lot busier than anyone can see from the outside looking in, and the time for identifying, engaging with, evaluating, and using the research is very limited. In this respect most PGCE tutors are in exactly the same position as most teachers apart from having done more work at Master’s level at some point in the past. Secondly, there is no obvious reason for successful teachers to make career moves into HEIs because the pay and career structure is a lot better in schools (I make about £35K with zero chance of promotion, which is less attractive on both counts than my previous middle management position). At the moment, taking a few years out of school to train teachers is unlikely to be the thing that cracks open an assistant headship. There are reasons to make the move (in my case the flexible hours have solved a child care problem) but then the requirement to teach and assess at Master’s level will prevent many effective school teachers from making the transition. Finally, from what I’ve read online, the Cambridge history collaboration sounds tremendous; we are a million miles from that level of engagement from our mentors. Just getting them out of school for an afternoon twice a year is like getting blood from a stone. Sometimes just trying to communicate by phone or email is a trial. Unfortunately we are so tight for placements (always an issue for maths and science here) that it is very difficult to put pressure on schools to give mentors more time because if we lost two or three we might not be able to place all our trainees. For me, the most striking thing about my new job is the way I hand over nearly all responsibility for my tutees to school mentors once they are on placement; the quality of each trainee’s experience depends enormously on the mentor and yet that mentoring is probably the thing I have least control over.
So I think what I’m saying is that, although there are elements of SD that could really improve ITT, the fragmentation of expertise and the current lack of accountability over standards is a major problem. Like Joe Kirby I worry about consistent quality; unlike Joe, I think the answer lies in improving what HEIs do, not going further down the school-based route because if the DfE continue to drive ITT out of HEIs we are going to have a short-term recruitment crisis and in the long-term I think that we might have some dazzling examples of fantastic training and a lot of low-quality, uninformed ITT, delivered by alliances that just don’t have the personnel or capacity to do a great job. In the end, even Teaching Schools do not have teacher training as their raison d’etre. Whilst PGCE may be pretty low on the Russell Group food chain, teacher training is the reason I and my colleagues have a job, and that means the quality of what we deliver drives every decision we make. What we need is to find a way to incentivise Teaching Schools and others to work more closely with HEIs rather than to be in competition with them. We want experienced HEI tutors to provide the continuity but then to have others moving more freely between the classroom and the university. We need to establish what it is that education research can tell us about effective teaching, and not leave it to those leading the training to all individually try to squeeze this work into their evenings and weekends. Can I be specific?
- Establish stability over the allocations so that universities can make informed decisions about whether or not to continue to offer ITT and so that schools can work out how they want to operate.
- Find an incentive that will get universities and schools working together more closely, so SD and HEI routes share good practice and build on each other’s strengths.
- Make it a clear expectation that all schools offer training placements, through whatever route, and that they allocate appropriate time to match e.g. releasing mentors for training or to collaborate better with providers.
- Provide some decent education research or other funding, specifically for those involved in ITT, or T&L in schools, to give them the time to engage broadly with the research base as part of their job rather than on top of everything else.
- Establish a clear core framework for what teachers should know and be able to do to be awarded QTS (and this absolutely has to be owned by the profession and not imposed by the Carter Review or anyone else – if that requires a Royal College, fine, but if a respected group like Headteachers’ Roundtable or some prominent school or university, or ResearchED or something can get this established so it spreads across schools and HEIs that could also work). David Weston has been prominently saying this for some time and Rob Coe recently too. This should be based on a combination of research and existing good practice, and will take time and money to get right.
- Do something about the dreadful way in which Ofsted inspects ITT (won’t go into details here but it really sucks).
- Start holding training providers to account through the online community i.e. do for ITT what Old Andrew has done for Ofsted. I don’t think insisting providers publish their training materials – as Dominic Cummings has suggested – is viable but if the online community work with trainees and NQTs to name and shame genuine garbage, HEIs will sit up and take note pretty sharpish.
- This one is specific to science but I would like to see the majority of trainees doing a Subject Knowledge Enhancement course before training so we can fix those who currently start with rudimentary six-year old GCSE in one or more of the three subjects they have to teach.
- And finally I would like all ITT courses to include just one Master’s level assignment (20 credits) in the form of a literature review. I think 60 credits is too much and distracts from classroom practice but one assignment is the chance to get a good grasp of research methodology in education. This would mean the end of the ITT year would be QTS but then I think teachers should do the other 40 credits in NQT+1 or NQT+2 when they’ve got the head space for it, to complete PGCE. This would help to keep HEIs and research in touch with schools and early career teachers.
Some of this is about systems, and some about incentives. As always, tinkering with the systems is only important to the extent that it provides stability for people and organisations to make commitments and the long-term investments of time that lead to higher quality outcomes. The DfE often forget this (possibly that is a charitable interpretation) operating as they do on a five year election cycle. I hope the Carter Review doesn’t.
There are three other models of ITT that I’m aware of. SCITTs, Teach First, and Troops to Teachers. The latter is very small and specialised and probably isn’t relevant. SCITTs I know very little about but I should think what I’ve said above still holds with SCITTs taking the place of HEIs if they are big enough – I don’t have any really strong views about whether an HEI or SCITT is better if the tutors are the right people. Teach First, I know a bit more about, and they deserve massive credit for the very significant glamour they’ve added to the image of ITT. The details of the training I can’t comment on except that I like the idea of front-loading the training (the SD programmes that get trainees in front of classes after 1 day need to take note) although I think it’s essential to also have time for reflection after trying things with real children and after watching effective teachers in the classroom, and I’m not sure how much time there is for this with Teach First. The emphasis on getting the teachers with high potential into tough schools is brilliant. The vagueness over subject-specialism and Teach First’s apparent option to ignore the subject allocations that everyone else is constrained by, worry me a bit. And I suspect that Teach First have issues with things like mentoring quality, that are also problems elsewhere. The final issue with Teach First is that whether or not the preparation and support in school is first rate, there will still be failures, and if it does all go wrong then everyone involved takes a big hit. I think what’s important is that Teach First isn’t seen as some kind of beacon of hope that everyone else should be emulating, but an example of an alternative training route, meeting a particular need, with elements to be admired and elements to be improved.