Linking ITT and workforce data: a step in the right direction

I had the great pleasure of meeting Becky Allen back at the beginning of the year for a bit of a discussion about the work Education Datalab were doing on matching teacher training records to the School Workforce Census. I suspect a pretty monumental amount of effort has gone into nailing down the final details since then but two of the three linked reports are now published. I suggest you start here to either have a quick look at the key findings, or to access the full reports. So far I’ve just read the NCTL one.

It is immediately apparent that this is something the DfE ought to have done years ago. There is a lot of talk of evidence-based policy-making but any kind of genuine commitment to such a thing would have seen this sort of data-analysis set up prior to the seismic changes to ITT that have been implemented since 2010. Hey-ho; better late than never.

In theory this methodology could be used for a much longer-term project that might start generating some really useful data on the impact of various approaches to training teachers. It is easy to pick up this work and think it is limited to evaluating structural issues about ITT routes but if you consider the richness of a data set that can pretty much link every teacher in the maintained sector back to their ITT experiences, there is almost unlimited potential. Inevitably, for ITT providers, there is a pretty steady (and self-selecting) drift out of contact over the years after qualification. This work potentially solves that problem for research on any aspect of ‘what works’ in ITT. That’s something for the future; what of the findings here?

It would be tremendously easy for a lot of people in ITE to say “I told you so” in regard to the Teach First retention figures. Actually, I think the useful questions are more subtle than that but figures first. Using the lower-bound numbers, traditional HEI-led routes have about 60% of those initially recruited working as teachers in the maintained sector in their third year after qualifying. SCITTs are higher at 70% (but these would have been the early adopters). School Direct hasn’t been running long enough to have figures. Teach First is under 50%.

datalab retention graph

However, there are several things to remember about Teach First. Their qualifying year involves teaching potentially difficult classes, mostly in schools with more challenging behaviour, with variable levels of in-school/in-class support, whereas university-led trainee teachers are supernumerary, on lower timetables, and working in a wider range of schools, and rarely those in a category or Grade 3. Teach First are also possibly more likely to continue to work in more challenging schools although I think that is an assumption I would want to see data on because certainly some participants move from TF schools to schools at the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum.

There are also a few things to remember about HEI-led courses. Financial survival, and the need to make up the numbers across all the shortage subjects, probably mean that in these subjects the HEI-led cohort has a longer tail than for any other route. SCITTs may have some of these pressures too but, particulary in the years for this report, are likely to have had the opportunity to be more selective. I suspect it’s the other way round for subjects like PE, English and history where the larger scale of HEIs generates a larger pool of applicants compared to SCITTs. Since shortage subjects make up the bulk of an HEI cohort, you would expect to have a lower qualification rate, and also some marginal grade 2s where support (or lack of it) in their employing school might determine success in their NQT year. As pointed out right at the beginning, the report can’t tell us anything about what would happen to the same trainee teachers if they were trained via a different route.

Teach First recruitment has been astonishingly successful. Having seen the marketing machine in action, and with access to funding that very few providers can match, that is perhaps not completely surprising but it has been terrific nonetheless. This means they probably have the strongest cohort of all at the start of training. For me, the critical question to ask is, if Teach First training was more like the HEI-led route, or a SCITT, would there be hundreds more high quality teachers still in the classroom. There is no way to tell from this report but, anecdotally, the Teach First participants I have worked with would all have had excellent outcomes on the HEI-led course or School Direct programmes I mainly work on. What I don’t know is whether they would have gone into teacher training at all.

If Teach First is mainly putting people who would never have tried teaching into struggling schools with teacher recruitment problems, to do a decent job for two or three years, then that is probably a justifiable use of public money; if they are putting potentially high quality, long-career teachers through training in a way that knocks an additional 10-20% off retention, that doesn’t look so good. I suppose there might be other benefits; I’m unconvinced by these but make up your own mind. Sam Freedman sets out the most positive case here.

What about the other findings?

  • Three regions of England – North East, North West and South West – appear to have large numbers of new qualified teachers who do not join a state-sector school immediately after achieving QTS.
    • This is pretty good evidence that the NCTL need to sort out the Teacher Supply Model, but that was already very apparent. We are waiting on tenterhooks for the announcement on allocation methodology (so presumably they are desperately trying to invent something at the moment; let’s hope they don’t make another almighty cock-up!
  • Those studying on undergraduate with QTS courses have low initial retention rates in the profession, though we cannot know whether this results from subsequent choices made by the individual or recruitment decisions made by schools.
    • They do, but the data also shows they catch up later. I suspect that if you have a B.Ed. sooner or later it becomes the best option for a professional career whereas PGCEs have their UG degree as an alternative option (depending on subject a bit)
  • Teach First has very high two year retention rates, but thereafter their retention is poorer than other graduate routes.
    • I’m hoping, perhaps in vain, that the move away from QTS  might link teacher development across from ITT into the first year(s) of post-qualification employment for other routes and get a bit of the 2-year TF programme effect into other routes.
  • Ethnic minority teacher trainees have very low retention rates.
    • I suspect because they are much more likely to have limited experience of the UK education system if educated abroad, and are also more likely to be EAL, both of which, in my experience, can affect classroom relationships. It would be enormously useful to have data that separates UK and non-UK educated teachers and drill down a bit. In my part of the world, UK-educated BME applicants are thin on the ground but I don’t notice anything that would lower their retention rate.
  • Individuals who train part-time or who are older have much poorer retention rates, which may simply reflect other family commitments that interfere with continuous employment records.
    • UoS doesn’t do part-time. I have a hunch that retention might actually be better for older trainee teachers on our Science PGCE – they do mostly need a proper job to pay mortgages whereas younger trainees often don’t have that commitment. On the other hand, whilst they are nearly all tremendous people to work with, developing into a good teacher is partly about developing habits that are effective in the classroom and I think changing habits gets harder as you get older. It’s also a very fast-moving environment when you are a novice and again I think adapting to this gets harder with age. They are quite often particularly good at developing relationships with teenagers though, so it’s swings and roundabouts, maybe.

So those are my first thoughts. I think we have some way to go to get stable and effective initial teacher education that is structurally sound and therfore with the potential for continuous improvement. NCTL have tried quite hard to break what we had; now we need to take the best of the many pieces and put them back together again, hopefully to end up with something better than before. High quality evidence is a key part of this process, as are people in high places that are prepared to pay attention to it. This report is a very important step in the right direction.




NAO Report: Training New Teachers

Some time ago, quite soon after I moved into an ITE job at the University of Southampton, I posted on my thoughts on the relative merits of university-led and School Direct training routes. Looking back now, I would summarise the post as essentially suggesting that there were some advantages to SD that universities ought to have sorted out ages ago, but there are problems with SD too, and all sorts of quality-control issues. A surprising number of people seemed to think I got that about right.

Since then things have progressed and, for example, I’m now doing a bit of tutoring for Teach First so understand that programme much better than before. I’ve worked with trainee teachers from a SCITT as well. And, in general, have just seen more of the system, its triumphs, and its disasters. At the same time, we’ve been going through a series of desperate measures by the NCTL to boost recruitment (bursaries at SLT salary levels, abandonment of allocations, QTS on the side for under-graduates) and denials of the blindingly, bloody obvious from the DfE about current recruitment and retention levels. So things have progressed but I remain worried about the future of ITE  in this country.

The National Audit Office report was much-needed and I strongly suggest anyone with an opinion on ITE at the system level should read it. However, this post is prompted as much by what’s not in the report, as by what is.

Everyone in ITE – university tutors, school-based training co-ordinators, TF leadership development officers, and particularly the many individual mentors who are generally adding the demands of mentoring on top of their own teaching workloads with very little compensation – is working like trojans to deliver the best possible training for new entrants to the profession but it is all made so much more difficult by the lack of any stability in the system. If anyone has the impression that the DfE have a carefully thought-through plan, are proceeding intelligently, and properly evaluating as they go then I haven’t met them yet. Sure, there is a policy direction, but that’s not the same thing at all. The NAO report states “The Department… does not yet have sufficient information about long-term costs and the extent to which each route, and increasing schools’ role in the process, has improved teaching standards”. I think that’s very generous!

On the other hand, powerful people associated with the DfE are hardly unique in spending some time getting the feel of things, thinking they have the answer to making a significant improvement, and then ploughing ahead with lots of determination and not much sensitivity to feedback. Read The Blunders of Our Governments for further insight!

In a better world, what would be the questions it would help to know the answers to in ITE? Here is my current list:

  1. Which training routes, or aspects of training, tend to produce the best teachers?
  2. Which training routes, or aspects of training, tend to produce teachers who stay in teaching?
  3. For both the above questions, what is the answer in absolute terms, and what is the answer when looking at value-added?
  4. What elements of the various selection processes correlate with successful outcomes?
  5. How much does each training route actually cost the taxpayer?

There are plenty of people that will happily pontificate on these, and probably provide an answer, but I’m yet to be convinced that anyone can back their assertions up with convincing evidence.

I believe Education Datalab are about to report on some aspects of Q2. That’ll be a great start! And from what I know about this project it has the potential to provide a permanent and rich source of information to relate training to retention and other aspects of early careers in teaching.

There have been a couple of commendable attempts to evaluate the impact of Teach First on children’s outcomes too, but as far as I know, that’s about it for teacher quality. Trying to measure the effectiveness of teachers is a significant problem but actually, if you are talking about trying to identify trends across large groups of trainees then it is certainly possible. Ofsted make some kind of attempt to measure absolute outcomes but it’s based on a small number of single observations, some pretty arbitrary judgements, is almost certainly unreliable, and in the end all ITE is effectively graded on a two point scale so that’s not an awful lot of use.

Given how long universities have had to work on selection criteria, and the research expertise around in some of them, it’s a bit embarrassing that selection procedures haven’t been more thoroughly investigated. To be fair, though, medical schools are only just beginning to get their act together on this too, and the outcome metrics for doctors are probably rather simpler to sort out than for teachers.

Maybe we do know the answer to Q5. The NAO report contains the graph below but these are not simple calculations because trainee teachers’ cost impacts and benefits in schools are complex. The thing that puzzles me is that we pay schools for placements and, although they provide some training, £3000 per trainee seems like a very high net cost. Also, although I suspect TF is expensive, they must save about half a salary in most schools even with days out, lighter timetables, mentor remission etc. I would like to see details of the source analysis for this graph.

NAO costs

There is the beginnings of a project, in which I have a hand, to try to develop a value-added model of evaluation that can be applied to ITE. This is important because absolute measures are likely to assess the quality of successful applicants, and that’s definitely not the same as the quality of training. It isn’t going to be easy and, at first, it’s likely to be a bit ropey because the measurement of both initial potential and NQT teacher effectiveness are problematic. However, if we can get some momentum going, and perhaps tie it in with some of the work happening elsewhere like the Education Datalab project, then we just might be able to start to fill the gap the DfE don’t seem to be addressing. Let’s hope so. It would be a startling revelation if we could actually point at robust data and say “Look! this is working better than that – now let’s figure out why.” If we want an evidence-informed profession, finding out what really works in training teachers might be quite a good move. We certainly haven’t got any spare trainee teachers to break!



Crunch Time for Teacher Training Recruitment: After the storm

There wasn’t going to be a 5th part but now that the dust has settled on the chaos that has marked the closing of university-led recruitment to PE and history, with further controls put into place for English and primary, I thought it was worth a moment to take stock.

My earlier posts, written as UCAS opened, are here:

  • 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
  • Part 4: Show me the money, is about my concerns around fees and bursaries for trainee teachers

I wasn’t the only person to suggest that the NCTL decision had the tragedy of the commons stamped all over it (although I did beat Chris Husbands to it) but I still under-estimated just how damaging this was going to be. I know for certain that some providers have been making offers without interviewing, although I don’t know how many. We haven’t, but when the Cambridge History PGCE was sitting on a shortlist of 21 applicants with the NCTL almost certain to close history nationally before the Cambridge interviews, that was my suggestion to save their course.

Fortunately, the NCTL used their emergency control measures to allow Cambridge, and the other seven universities that hadn’t reached 75% of last year’s allocation to continue to recruit up to that level. Even I hadn’t predicted just how fast the final flurry of offers was going to be and the NCTL have very sensibly put the 75% rule in place in advance for English and primary (although a 25% cut in primary will still be someone’s job, just not the entire course).

Now I want to be absolutely clear that I am very pleased that those eight history PGCEs have been given a stay of execution. But I would also like to point out that others have not been so fortunate. How many PE courses have been killed off because they didn’t see the writing on the wall sufficiently clearly? No-one knows because there wasn’t a highly favoured, knowledge-rich, PE course with national clout and a strong Twitter presence, about to get clobbered when PE went over 50% of target. Equally, this is the second time policy-makers have chosen to protect Oxbridge teacher training. The Southampton History PGCE is very, very good too but our allocation has been cut, and cut since the expansion of School Direct. As a consequence we have been turning away excellent applicants from our university-led course whilst struggling to help schools recruit to a decent standard. The demand for university-led means that, ironically, this year’s free-for-all has taken our university-led numbers right back up again without any compromise on standards. I think that is excellent news for the children and teachers in history departments in our area but it’s certainly not what the NCTL wanted and I’m pretty sure that nationally this debacle has had the opposite effect on quality.

There seems to be this perennial blind spot for policy makers that leaves them oblivious to the unintended consequences of policy changes, particularly attempts to set up or fiddle with quasi-markets within the public sector (well, actually universities are private sector but you know what I mean). Because the immediate consumer isn’t the one paying the bill, policy-makers have to add controls but when hospitals are given targets to get patients off trolleys, someone takes the wheels off the trolleys and calls them beds; when police are given crime reduction targets they re-classify crimes as suspicious occurrences; when FE colleges are paid by volume and pass rate they put students through lots of additional, easy, worthless courses; when Ofsted suggest that feedback is important, head teachers introduce unsustainable triple marking policies.

This is rubbish. Please, please, please, can we work on clarifying what is most effective in initial teacher education. I wrote a long post about this a while back but actually it is large, strong and very well-integrated university-school partnerships that are focused on providing curriculum expertise; varied, supernumerary and carefully supported classroom practice; and top quality mentoring. And then can we move gradually and sustainably in that direction without this ridiculous combination of ideological preference for school-led routes, unhelpful competition, fragmentation of the ITE landscape, and constantly changing recruitment policy that prevents anyone making long-term plans.

The NCTL have damaged ITE this year: badly and prominently, but not for the first time.

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.