Crunch Time for Teacher Training Recruitment: Show me the money!

This is 4th and final part of a little series on recruitment to post-graduate initial teacher training.

  • Part 1: Bear or bull? is a broad view of the implications of this year’s radical changes.
  • Part 2: Small losses, describes a particularly effective selection process used by one SD alliance to ensure a good match between trainee teacher and training school.
  • Part 3: Hedging our bets, is a little idea about how we might heal the fractured teacher training landscape

The DfE have a new TV advert running. If you really want to feed your teacher soul then you need to watch the original Taylor Mali version, but it’s not a bad effort until the final frame, which has caused a touch of controversy. There may or may not be a few hundred London-based classroom teachers making £65K, and it may or may not be disingenuous to suggest you can earn this as a great teacher (you certainly can if you make head teacher). To me, that’s beside the point. It’s another figure in that final frame that really concerns me.

A tax-free, NI-free, pension-contribution-free, bursary of £30K is the equivalent of a teaching salary of about £45K. Never mind £65K, many of my physics trainee teachers are taking home more money than me, their school mentor, and their HoD. At the same time, I have other tutees who get nothing at all, just an extra £9K on their student loan. Neither of these things seem right to me.

I suppose if one takes a free-market perspective to the teacher labour market then the obvious response to not meeting recruitment targets is to ‘pay’ teachers in shortage subjects more. But that’s not really what those bursaries are doing; they’re much more like golden hellos (or perhaps ‘bait’ is a better word for it) because my physicists go on to pretty standard Main Pay Range salaries as NQTs. A big bursary is obviously cheaper in the long run than starting them on higher salaries but I worry that the experience of my trainee teachers is that their very tough PGCE year is followed by an even tougher NQT year accompanied by a massive cut in income. That isn’t a sustainable formula that encourages retention.

The final problem is “bursary tourism”. Not something we are experiencing at Southampton but I’m starting to hear the term from other providers. On the other hand, we do always have a very small number of trainee teachers that do not go into a teaching career after gaining their PGCE, and some who take independent sector teaching jobs. I know a lot of people are concerned about the taxpayer stumping up so much money and then not getting a direct return. It could be argued that this is just an unfortunate side-effect of a relatively cheap and effective way of boosting recruitment but again, my concern is about sustainability. This feels as though new teachers are being treated like a disposable commodity – buy a bunch and just throw away any that don’t work properly.

I’m not suggesting bursaries are useless. I’m certain that there are a few applicants each year for whom the tempting bursary re-awakens a dormant interest in teaching; I think there are probably a few each year that don’t know if they want to teach but are prepared to have a crack given that the money is good, and then love it and stay. There are undoubtedly many science trainee teachers each year who just could not afford to train without a bursary (it’s not as though you can hold down a PT job during a PGCE) but the size of the curent bursaries, and the very specific link with degree classification, just doesn’t feel like a professional, sustainable model to me.

I don’t think that bursaries that have to be re-paid are the solution. I don’t want to be training people who woke up from their post-finals bender, suddenly realised they needed something to do, and thought “hey, teaching is easy and there’s a great bursary”.  But I don’t think anyone really knows whether teaching is for them or not until they actually do it; prior experience of schools helps with this – inspiring for some and horrifying for others – but that’s not the same as actually taking responsibility for a class. If someone gives teaching a genuine chance and finds it’s not for them we shouldn’t be penalising them, but equally we shouldn’t be paying them an assistant head’s salary whilst they are finding out.

Perhaps bursaries could be tweaked in some other way – perhaps tapering them over a longer period to sweeten the first couple of years of MPS; maybe spread them more evenly rather than targeting just the high achieving science, maths, and MFL graduates who are not consistently the best teachers and are most likely to switch careers away from teaching anyway; maybe have additional criteria, like having to have a certain amount of relevant experience working with children, or passing a difficult pedagogical subject-knowledge assessment, to boost applicant quality. Each of these options would feel more like a sustainable investment in the quality of the teaching profession rather than a desperate attempt to get customers through the door. However, for me they still miss the point that a PGCE is genuinely the first year of a proper professional career; I think that all trainee teachers should be paid a proper unqualified teacher rate. This represents a financial contract that reflects the professional contract they take on as a trainee teacher; it is enough money to live on; it gets rid of the massive imbalance between degree classifications and subject specialisms, which can currently see a mediocre trainee teacher rolling in it whilst a brilliant one is left destitute; it means the transition to NQT involves a pay rise and not a pay cut; and it should end any “bursary tourism” that might be starting to rear it’s ugly head.

Of course, whilst for secondary the savings from mathematicians and scientisists will probably balance out the costs from English and humanities etc. the big difference would be at primary, where only a few subject specialists get bursaries at the moment. On the other hand, the cost of telling parents that their children will have to be in a class of 35, or won’t have a qualified teacher for the year, may be greater (at least if you are a politician and value being in power), and presumably more competition for primary PGCE places will filter through to the quality of primary teaching, upon which everything else in education depends.

What will this mean for physics recruitment, though? Well, I think there are better ways to get more good physics teachers into schools.

Firstly the Subject Knowledge Enhancement route has been a major success and there is some good evidence to suggest that it is pedagogical subject knowledge that matters in teaching, and not graduate level personal subject knowledge; we don’t necessarily need lots more physics graduates – you should see the quality of science teaching from psychology graduates we’ve trained recently!

Secondly, repayment of student loans is an obvious financial incentive. My physics trainee teachers often start the PGCE with a loan of at least £36K and finish with £9K more. The taxpayer is going to have to cover a fair bit of this anyway in 30 years so covering the repayments and/or writing down debt for anyone teaching in the maintained sector seems like a good idea and supports not only recruitment but also retention. Perhaps covering all repayments and writing off the first £9K at the end of the NQT year and then continuing pro-rata would be appropriate; it would certainly send a very strong signal about the value of teachers to society. I would like to see this for all teachers but I suppose it could be targeted at shortage subjects if money is tight.

Thirdly, offering small bursaries to undergraduates to spend time in schools (perhaps within University Ambassador Scheme modules, or just as work experience) would expose more people, at the right time, to the joys of working with children. It might make sense to target this on shortage subjects, in which case the IoP etc. would almost certainly be able to handle this effectively.

Finally, as Tom Sherrington has so eloquently described, teaching has not been painted in an overly favourable light in recent years (perhaps that should be ‘decades’). If this can change, nothing else will matter half as much. This, in particular, has been the tremendous success of Teach First – participants not only want to work with children but want to be a part of something that feels good and feels important. I remember the difference it made in the 90’s when teachers’ salaries and school budgets stopped going down in relative terms and started going up but, above a certain threshold, teachers don’t need to be shown the money; they need to know they are making a difference and they need to know that they are valued professionals. The current very high and tightly targeted training bursaries are sending out completely the wrong message.

Crunch Time for Teacher Training Recruitment: Hedging our bets

This is Part 3 of a little series on recruitment to post-graduate initial teacher training.

  • Part 1: Bear or bull? is a broad view of the implications of this year’s radical changes.
  • Part 2: Small losses, describes a particularly effective selection process used by one SD alliance to ensure a good match between trainee teacher and training school.

The great advantage of the SD route for applicants is that they know which school they will be training in, before they accept an offer. Most obviously this allows them to avoid or embrace tough inner-city, coastal urban, deprived rural area, leafy suburban, religious or non-denominational, small, large, or whatever schools depending on their preference. More subtly it allows them to find a good fit with a department or school environment. For the schools, they can be sure that if they get a dodgy trainee then they have only themselves to blame, they can select for compatibility (as they would for any other employee), and they know that the trainee has chosen them on merit and the strengths of their offer.

The reason why SD recruitment has failed to match HEI recruitment is precisely because schools get to choose. An HEI can take on rough diamonds (and perhaps lesser gems) and use the combination of university-based training and placements to polish them up. Our record in turning out good-to-excellent teachers is mainly a reflection of the terrific quality of our trainee teachers but it does also attest to the success of this process of polishing.

Get rid of HEIs and those rough diamonds will remain forever buried in the dirt. Take all the decisions away from the schools (you have to use your imagination here – that’s not likely any time soon) and you would lose some of the considerable extra buy-in to ITE that SD has generated.

Although it was really before my time, I tend to think that if HEIs had, across the board, managed to consistently create strong partnerships with schools for teacher training, then there wouldn’t have been any appetite for SD in the first place. However much the DfE wanted to side-line ‘the blob’, it was the chance for schools to have more control over recruitment and training that led to the strong SD uptake. Unfortunately what we’re left with is a fractured and confusing training landscape. Is there some way we could step back a bit and try to keep the advantages of both SD and HEI recruitment, make things simpler for applicants, whilst strengthening partnerships too?

I wonder if something like the Oxbridge college system could be useful, with applicants making their UCAS application to the HEI or SCITT accredited provider but with the option to express a preference for a particular school or group of schools. Schools and providers would work together to match suitable applicants to their preferred school. Probably this would involve an initial central interview done jointly, and then a day spent in the preferred school to allow that more subtle judgement about ‘fit’ to be made. Remaining places across the partnership would be filled from the pool of successful but unmatched applicants. I can envisage different levels of autonomy, with some schools doing more training themselves and others choosing to pool resources with the provider. Transfer between schools (which is sometimes a highly effective way to get a trainee back on track) would be simpler. Applicants would have a less complicated choice, particularly if applications reverted to one provider at a time (instead of the current three UCAS choices). Schools would get to choose applicants up to the limiting need to hit national recruitment targets. Partnerships would be pushed closer. What’s not to like?

When the dust settles on the current recruitment cycle I’ll have a look at how it’s gone. Hopefully the NCTL and DfE will be doing the same. This year’s free-for-all is a one year trial. If it works then great; if not, maybe it’s time to look at alternatives. And maybe that could include taking a rather more pragmatic and sustainable view on whether or not school and employment-based routes should continue to be promoted by central government at the expense of university-based routes that continue to be popular and successful.

Thanks for reading.

Crunch Time for Teacher Training Recruitment: Small losses

This is Part 2 of a little series on recruitment to post-graduate initial teacher training.

In my last post I worried that the radical changes to ITT allocations could drive down quality and be hard to control. In this one I want to highlight one small loss along the way.

One of the strengths of the SD route is the really excellent integration of trainee teachers into the professional life of the school and department within which they are working and training. Unlike HEI trainee teachers they start in school on the first day of the Autumn term and often stay until the last day of the Summer term. To children, they are generally seen as just another teacher, and there are distinct advantages to this. On the other hand, if a school or alliance makes a poor recruitment decision then the flexibility that an HEI (or large SCITT) has to move the trainee teacher to a more appropriate placement is missing. This makes the recruitment process critical.

Now, I don’t want to dwell on the difficulties of getting this right. Although we have had some experience of schools in our partnership making bad decisions and offering to applicants that we have advised against, and also have seen applicants rejected who would have almost certainly been just fine had they applied for university-led, we have a really productive relationship with our partnership schools and alliances, work closely together to get recruitment right, and the vast majority of SD trainee teachers are excellent. So this post is about the particularly thorough approach one SD alliance takes to recruitment, and the difficulty of maintaining this in the face of changes to allocations.

Within this alliance there is a two-stage interview and selection process. The first interview is conducted in one of the alliance schools and includes a pupil panel and a fairly typical recruitment interview, which includes a representative of the university and one or more professional mentors from schools in the alliance. There is nothing unusual in this; it’s the next stage that makes the process so strong. Having made first round decisions, school preferences are discussed with the successful applicants and they are then asked to spend a day in the school they are potentially going to train in. This usually happens within a week or so of the first interview round. During that day, they spend a lot of time with the relevant subject department, do some work with children in class, and carry out a short teaching session. If the fit with the department is good then they are offered a place; if not, then they might be asked to do the same thing in another school within the alliance, or be rejected. Equally, of course, the applicant might not be impressed, in which case they are likely to go with one of the other two providers they’ve applied to.

Under the new system there is a major problem in popular subjects. The NCTL have been clear that when they close a subject, any offers made will be honoured. The have been rather vaguer on what happens to those applicants who are in the process of being interviewed when a subject closes; I think if they are interviewed and the offer is then made on the same day that the subject closes, this will be okay. However, at the moment there doesn’t seem to be any way to protect applicants between two interview stages so the model described above risks a subject closure before the second selection stage.

This takes me back to my concern that the new system may drive down quality. Although it is lengthy and expensive in terms of staff time, the two stage model has delivered excellent matching of schools and trainee teachers. It’s not the end of the world; other alliances in our partnership have managed very well with single stage interviews in the training school. But it’s a good model and it will be a shame if it’s no longer viable.

Beyond this small loss, I’ve always thought that university-led and SD selection could be more integrated, with benefits for all, perhaps drawing to some extent on the model described above. I’ll explore this in my next post.

Crunch Time for Teacher Training Recruitment: Bear or bull?

This is Part 1 of a little series on recruitment to post-graduate initial teacher training.

The New York stock exchange bell rings each weekday to signal the start of a frenzy of trading. The whole business is dramatic enough to justify the regular appearance of celebrity bell-ringers. In previous years, UCAS applications for Initial Teacher Training have opened without fanfare but I can’t help thinking that this year they should have got a bell and maybe drafted in Amir Khan or Felix Baumgartner to ring it.

Maybe that’s a touch dramatic but with no allocations this year, the popular shares are going to go like hotcakes, although I have no doubt us scientists will, as usual, still be picking up applications in August. I guess there will always be high demand stocks and those that just tick over gently in the unwanted corners of global capitalism but for my colleagues in the popular secondary subjects, and primary, it’s probably all going to be striped jackets and manic yelling for the next few weeks, months, or – in the case of PE – possibly days.

For anyone not familiar with the radical changes to ITT recruitment, the major difference is that in previous years each provider or SD alliance had a specific allocation of places. For example, we might be allocated 10 biology places (with severe penalties for going over this number). This year, there are no allocations for individual providers, just a total for the whole country. When this national target is reached, all providers will be told to stop recruiting. If you want to investigate the subtleties then the NCTL guidance is here.

I can see the argument. One of the problems in the last couple of years has been that SD routes have struggled to fill places whilst HEIs have recruited more successfully but have been held back, in some shortage subjects, by their allocation. Equally, some SD alliances have recruited very strongly and could have taken more trainee teachers but were essentially prevented from doing so by the unfilled allocations of other alliances. Maybe a freer hand for some providers to take on extra places would have helped. Having said that, last year when we reached our allocation for chemistry we just asked the NCTL for some more places, got them, and filled several of these. As long as the NCTL respond immediately to requests for extra places in shortage subjects (which hasn’t always been the case), and increase allocations for successful alliances that want to expand year on year, this seems like a decent solution to the problem of maintaining control over numbers whilst allowing the system to respond quite flexibly.

However, the new system has taken a big step further and gone all out for flexibility – I guess ‘quite flexible’ wasn’t seen as good enough – but I fear at the expense of quality, and possibly control. I’ll try to explain why, taking history as an example. Until this year, my history colleague has always been blessed with a large number of applications and the certainty that these will keep coming. She shortlists the really good ones and interviews in batches of about half-a-dozen, offering places only to those she is certain will go on to be excellent teachers. Somewhere during the Spring term she has usually reached her allocation and closes the course. Sometimes applicants that look good on paper are unconvincing at interview and under the previous system my colleague could confidently reject these knowing that better applicants would come later. Now, bear in mind that all our jobs are dependent on maintaining the number of trainee teachers we recruit; how does that affect her decisions under the new system? What if she is below the normal allocation for history, rejects some unsatisfactory applicants, and then the NCTL close history nationally: well, clearly we’re screwed.

The tragedy of the commons is stamped all over this. If all providers stick to their previous very high standards for history, then they should all be able to recruit the same number of excellent history trainees as before. But as soon as some providers start lowering standards to ensure they hit their recruitment targets, everyone has to either follow suit or be left short when history closes. And, although no provider will (apparently) be allowed to dramatically increase their slice of the pie, if the ones that recruit fastest quite reasonably add on an extra one or two then that compounds the problem. Expect the same thing for English, geography, and primary.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, there is the further complication that each applicant will have applied to three different providers. So, if my colleague were aiming for, say, ten historians, she needs to make more offers to account for those who will choose other providers. How many more? Who knows? She can look at historical data to try to ascertain the proportion of offers that are accepted but with small numbers there is likely to be more noise than signal. What if she makes twenty offers and they all accept (she runs an excellent course!)? Oops, we’ve just doubled the cohort. Worse, what if other providers make this error? Well, history closes nationally with our course only half full and, again, we’re screwed.

For PE, it’s exactly the same thing, but on speed. Our PE PGCE is normally full by Christmas but they’ll have had over a hundred applications by then. There could easily be enough decent applications submitted in the first week to have one interview round, fill the course, and close next week. Nick Leeson tried to dig himself out of the hole he got Barings Bank into with an ‘all in’ overnight bet on the stability of the Tokyo and Singapore stock exchanges, waking the next morning to the Kobe eathquake, 6500 dead, and total financial ruin. How many providers will line up their interviews, only to wake up on interview day to an email from the NCTL telling them PE is shut? No-one will die; no buildings will be razed; no-one will go to prison; but that could certainly be a career-ending miscalculation.

Now, as my wife frequently points out, I’m an unrepentant pessimist; whenever things change I’m always looking for the potential for this to create a bear market. It is generally the case that the best ITT applicants are committed and organised and therefore apply early. Maybe the pressure to snatch the first good ones and run will work out okay. Maybe providers are wise enough to avoid any kind of race to the bottom, and quality will be maintained. Maybe the extra flexibility will gradually apply market pressure to select the best provision. Maybe the extra flexibility will help to support numbers and ease concerns about recruitment. Maybe there will be no bears: maybe it’s just bull.

Practice and Progress

I’m just on my third cohort of trainee teachers at Southampton. Each year, I’ve cut back the amount I’ve tried to cover, for reasons similar to the ones mentioned by Harry Fletcher-Wood in this thought-provoking post, but I think the picture is a bit more complex than the one he (in that particular post), and I guess Doug Lemov, present.

I think he is absolutely right that too much, too soon, is unhelpful. Now that I am acting as tutor for a couple of TF participants it’s very clear to me that most of the summer institute work needs to be focused on getting them to the start of September with the basics in place as far as that is possible – an understanding of the curriculum, how to plan and teach a well-structured lesson, simple questioning, some practised responses to good and poor behaviour, and some idea of how to assess, mark books and give feedback. This is exactly the same as for our UL trainee teachers although there is a bit more riding on the immediate outcome with TF.

However, I think there are some issues with the way in which these skills are practised because they have to be applied in different school settings. As an example, Harry got his trainee teachers to produce differentiated LOs. But what about two trainee teachers, one of whom goes into a school where the expectation is to have “All, Most, Some” differentiated LOs, and another who goes into a school where the view is that “All, Most, Some” is the work of the devil? That would be an inconvenience to an experienced teacher but could be a major obstacle to someone who had only seen one approach. Dealing with behaviour is often where things are most strongly context-specific. I have a lot of respect for Lemov’s work but if you spent a few sessions practising getting a class to SLANT on command and were then deployed in a typical secondary school, that could easily go pear-shaped.

One of the strengths of supernumerary UL ITT routes ought to be the possibility of taking on whole class teaching gradually in order to refine these basics in context but ironically one of the weaknesses of UL routes is that it can be difficult at a distance to get mentors to implement this – they have a tendency to want trainee teachers to run before they can walk. One of the strengths of SD and SCITTs ought to be that the training is already context-specific but, again, sometimes school-based tutors don’t come down to basics, or limit initial expectations enough – perhaps due to inexperience. I guess TF misses out on either of these options, so mentoring quality, and a very effective focus on appropriate targets is even more crucial.

What I really want to see is initial training that is restricted to the basics, with opportunity to practise, but enough flexibility to allow for different contexts. Then partial but increasing engagement with whole-class teaching that is designed to allow trainee teachers to develop confidence, and practise skills in context. For example, if a trainee teacher tends to ask closed, or very poor open, questions they could do 10 mins of questions with half-a-dozen classes, without having to plan and teach the whole lesson; if they are struggling with behaviour then the class teacher could take a few of the most difficult children aside for small group input to take just enough pressure off the trainee teacher for their management to be successful. This period of practice in context would end with full, whole-class teaching for long enough to embed the basics. Next, would come training sessions that re-visit and develop the basics now that there is some experience to allow reflection. (Here could come the rest of Harry’s AfL training, but also some broader ideas. For example, in science this would be a good point to get trainee teachers to reconsider the purpose of practical work and what the research says about making it more effective; in maths, this might be the point to consider the importance of worked examples, what mastery might mean, and the pros and cons of drilling and rich tasks, fuzzy maths or whatever.) Then, after that opportunity to reflect would come a more typical teaching period with responsibility for planning and teaching sequences of lessons, working on specific small steps all the way through, and building up to a secure, professional standard.

At the moment, I don’t think any training routes reliably achieve this kind of progression and I guess it will never be possible with some routes. We get somewhere near it with UL by having a first placement in the autumn term on a 35% timetable, then a couple of weeks back in university, and then a longer second placement on a fuller timetable; SDs and SCITTs have regular training days in school; TF has their Super Saturdays and other occasional training days. For me none of these quite nail it but all routes provide some opportunity for starting with the basics and then developing. I don’t have an immediate answer to this problem of building more slowly, practising better, but then not restricting trainee teachers later, but it seems to revolve around the strength of partnerships between experienced tutors who have the advantage of this being their main area of expertise, and school-based mentors who have the advantage of working with trainees in the classroom. At the moment, as a tutor, I feel like I have to cover too much early on with the trainee teachers because when they are on placement there seems to be an expectation that they will either have a good understanding of assessment and differentiation and behaviour, etc., or that there isn’t much to understand and they should just be able to pick it up as they go along.  I don’t get anything like enough time to support mentors, really, and then despite giving their time with unbelievable generosity, the mentors don’t really get enough time to work with trainee teachers. This leads to a situation in which inexperienced mentors get too much input all at once, from me, and then trainee teachers get the same, from me, and then again from their mentors.

I don’t want to give the impression that what we’re doing is poor. It’s so many times better than my own experience of teacher training it’s almost unrecognisable and we consistently work with a broad range of trainee teachers, and produce mostly good-to-excellent NQTs. It’s just that I think it might be possible to support our trainee teachers, and our mentors, even better, but I’m not quite sure how we get there.

Harry’s blog is great, and I think he’s right about that initial training, but we need to also get trainee teachers to practise in school contexts, and we need to re-visit later, reflect, and explore the bigger picture too, so they have the “where next?” steps covered as well as the first steps.