The Schools White Paper: Evidence, my arse!

Before I start ranting, there are quite a few potentially good ideas in the Schools White Paper around ITE. The proposal to extend some stability to at least a few providers for multiple years is very welcome although until this year’s debacle those most likely to be categorised as ‘best providers’ have largely been protected anyway. I understand the market-forces argument but allowing the rest of the sector to slowly wither isn’t going to drive up quality in this particular market, nor is it going to help with the recruitment crisis. The proposal to replace QTS with “a stronger, more challenging accreditation” with teachers’ development extending from ITE through into their first teaching job has massive potential to improve both the retention, and the quality of teaching, of early-career teachers. The recognition of problems with the teacher supply model and regional imbalances in ITE places is overdue. Mentoring skills in school are frequently undervalued and the time for high-quality training is often not made available so moves to raise the profile of this critical skill are important. A core content could be a good thing with such a fragmented ITE landscape, althought it will depend what it looks like. Coherent, evidence-based contributions on behaviour management preparation for trainee teachers can only help in an area where best practice still seems very anecdotal. That’s a lot of potential here but the possibility of taking good ideas and cocking them up completely is a real worry, not least because I’m still not convinced that anyone at the DfE really understands ITE. I’ll try to look at some of the specific issues later but there follows an illustration of the problem: rant starts here!

The word ‘evidence’ crops up about 80 times in the White Paper. It’s certainly a good thing that the DfE are talking about evidence-informed improvements but it would be a revelation if they actually started listening to their own rhetoric.

Despite some placatory words about “an important place for high quality universities in ITT” the real message is that “we will continue to increase the proportion of ITT delivered and led by schools”. Justification for continuing to lever training away from universities comes at the top of p.29 “We know that when teachers have extensive ITT in schools, they perform better 8”. Look: a footnote! Quite how anyone thinks it’s okay to cite research papers and reports without a proper reference is beyond me but I tracked down Musset (2010); Reinhartz and Stetson (1999); and Menter (2010) after a bit of detective work. Presumably you are thinking these are major reviews of ITE provision in this country, or international comparisons of the outcomes from different systems, all strongly suggesting that teacher training programmes are more successful when they are controlled by schools and maximise time ‘on the job’. Hmmm…

Musset (2010) is a report for the Mexican government on the strengths and weaknesses of Mexican teacher training in comparison with other systems within OECD countires. Before even looking at the conclusions, on p.39 it states “Initial teacher education in the United Kingdom since the mid-1990′ [sic] is mostly practicebased.” There’s a surprise – our ITE systems are already more school-oriented than most. The conclusions are worth reading carefully as, despite the slightly obscure source, and clearly different reference point from within the Mexican system, they do summarise what I’ve read elsewhere fairly well. However the key point that “field experience in schools… shouldn‘t take over completely on [sic] the theoretical part of teacher education, fundamental to obtain [sic] high-quality teachers. Countries should establish shared responsibility between teacher education institutes and schools in the training of teachers, in order to fill the ‘theory-practice’ gap” is hardly a justification for HEI pruning in ITE.

Reinhartz and Stetson (1999) is a single chapter in a very interesting book reviewing Professional Development Schools in the USA. Like Musset (2010) the emphasis is on integrated partnerships between schools and universities – PDSs are much more like University / Teaching Hospital partnerships than most Teaching Schools and SCITTs. In the school-led parts of our system, the university is quite often chosen to suit and potentially disposable if a better (or sometimes, cheaper) alternative presents itself. The cited chapter is a comparison of outcomes from a traditional university-based teacher education course and a PDS practice-based course. Just before considering the findings, I ought to mention the sample size was 22, the study participants were all elementary level, it was in the USA back in the ’90s, and the comparison was between a ‘bog-standard’ programme and a new, shiny and exciting innovation. Also, no information is provided on selection to the two programmes so we don’t know if there was self-selection or a different entry profile required; I’m pretty sure it would have been mentioned if it had been randomised. And finally, the traditional programme wasn’t like a PGCE with 120 days in school but instead had some ‘field-assignments’ in schools and a 10-12 week placement (50-60 days max). Now I know there’s a tendency in education to read too much into small studies with methodological issues if they have convenient outcomes but this is a bit much for a policy document likely to affect the training of tens of thousands of teachers. Hey ho! What was the conclusion? Well, the PDS programme produced more confident teachers who were evaluated more highly by employing principals as NQTs. So far, so good for the DfE but what did this PDS programme actually look like? Details are a touch scanty but basically, one full semester working in both school and university to develop an understanding of theory and the skills of analysis of practice, followed by one full semester of teaching. I think the teaching was sort-of employment-based, so maybe not all supernumerary, but it’s hard to tell. The importance of the equality of the partnership between schools and university is strongly emphasised in both this chapter and the rest of the book; in fact I’d say it was the central point of the whole thing.

Finally Menter (2010) was the hardest to track down because it is incorrectly cited but as a bonus I am now an email acquaintance of the author and we are both pretty certain this is the report for the Scottish Government. There is a section in that report suggesting that schools need to be much more involved in setting the agenda but, yet again, this is disingenuous because it’s making reference to a problem back in the ’90s when schools were providing placements but taking a rather minimalist view of their obligations in terms of support and partnership working. The suggestion is, yet again, for strong partnerships not for schools to take over ITE. As someone who has referred to “the political rape of teacher education” in England he is hardly a strong proponent of DfE policy. It’s almost as though the best they could do was an out-of-context reference from ‘the blob’.

This is the DfEs own view of the research of effective ITE. Quite apart from the embarrasingly thin evidence-base provided, my real worry is that the DfE still think universities are generally a bad influence. Instead they see an ideal ITE system as a few beacons of research-driven excellence around a handful of universities that are doing things they particularly like, and the vast majority of training being run directly by schools, freed from the shackles of all the other universities, particularly the original teacher training institutions. In contrast, the research they are quoting is strongly suggesting that vibrant partnerships between universities and schools, with time on ITE courses for reflection on the relationship between theory and practice, is the best approach. We know this, and that’s what we are already trying to achieve.

The quality of the partnership between schools and the university is at the absolute heart of what is best about ITE at Southampton. It may be that some credit is due to the DfE for a bit of ‘creative destruction’ at some point in the past, that pushed schools into thinking much more about their role in ITE. A long time ago some other combination of D and E letters was probably responsible for ensuring that the system in this country does involve extended time practising in real classrooms with real children. But we’ve had more than enough Maoism for one generation; please, less destruction will allow more creation.

Musset, P. (2010), “Initial Teacher Education and Continuing Training Policies in a Comparative Perspective: Current Practices in OECD Countries and a Literature Review on Potential Effects”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 48, OECD Publishing.

Menter, I., Hulme, M., Elliot, D., & Lewin, J. (2010). Literature review on teacher education in the 21st century. Edinburgh: The Scottish Government.

Reinhartz, J. & Stetson, R. (1999) Teachers as Leaders: A Question or an Expectation? In Byrd, D. & McIntyre, D. (Eds.) (1999) Research on Professional Development Schools: Teacher Education Yearbook VII. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press Inc.