What Might (Really) Work: A clear framework for ITT core content

Hope is like a road in the country; there was never a road but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence. ~Lin Yutang

This is the first in a hopeful series of posts about things I can envisage happening in ITE following on from the Schools White Paper 2016. All depends on the quality of implementation and the DfE don’t have a great track record so this may represent a triumph of hope over experience but you never know…

2.21. Building on Sir Andrew Carter’s recommendations, an independent working group chaired by Stephen Munday is now developing a clear framework for ITT core content.

Schools White Paper 2016 p.28

I am provisionally in favour of a core content. Leading universities are fiercely independent for very good reasons as far as their core business of knowledge-advancement is concerned but whilst this is essential for world-class research it has allowed some ITE to rather reflect the philosophies of lecturers and, carried too far, that is not a service to trainee teachers who are on a professional training course rather than a degree pathway. Equally, there is some terrific work being done by SD Alliances and SCITTs but there is always a danger that these smaller, and less outward-looking, ITE providers end up narrowly-focused on a few teachers’ personal experience, or deliver training based on vague and distant memories of education theory. Even those of us who like to think of ourselves as highly experienced, totally unbiased, and exceptionally well-read!!! ought to be either reassured that we haven’t fallen into the trap of following limited research threads and then happily confirming these within our own echo chambers, or possibly challenged to address gaps we weren’t aware of in our own work. If this core content is carefully developed by a broad team and if it is based on the best proper academic reviews of research on effective teaching and effective ITE, and wide consultation with both school leaders and a full cross-section of classroom teachers including RQTs and mentors, then it could be a really positive move to ensure that all trainee teachers are on courses that cover the basic ideas well.

I believe very strongly that research on school and teacher effectiveness only ever tells us what works most often and on average; there has to be scope for professional judgement in teaching, and training, to respond to individual needs and contexts, and room for the inspirational mavericks (whether more progressive like Phil Beadle, or more traditional like Katharine Birbalsingh). I would only ever want the core content to be setting out the ideas that fall into the category reserved for the most strongly-evidenced material. I would love to see some funding for several specific reviews along the lines of the one Ian Menter carried out for the Scottish Government, but making use of school effectiveness research specialists as well as more traditional educationalists; this would help to reduce cherry-picking from a limited reading list. Finally I want Ofsted to be looking at engagement with this process, whatever final decisions about programmes are reached by ITE providers, and not some tick-box exercise that forces compliance on the surface and antagonism and “we have to tell you this” attitudes underneath.

At the moment, high performing countries like Finland and Singapore are well ahead but there is an opportunity to not just catch but surpass them here. We are the ones with the world-leading universities; we are the ones with ResearchEd! But it will take time and genuine consultation to get right and everyone involved, from Nick Gibb to Michael Rosen, will need to accept that they haven’t read everything or been everywhere. If we can reach some kind of genuinely evidence-based consensus it would provide a terrific platform for not only high quality ITE, but far more sophisticated professional conversations, and would have an impact not just on trainee teachers but the whole profession. It doesn’t need a change to the Teachers Standards (well done White Paper!); it doesn’t need over-bearing accountability to ensure implementation (are you listening, Ofsted?); it needs to demonstrate its worth through its own unimpeachable credentials and the inclusiveness of the path to its creation.  That may be asking a lot but the rewards could be immense.



Hope over Experience: ITE and The Schools White Paper 2016

I find it very difficult to forgive Michael Gove, Nicky Morgan, and ministers for the almost continuous barrage of reforms that inevitably add to teacher workload, often deflect attention away from the kind of deep praxis that could genuinely and permanently affect children’s learning, and frequently turn out to be about as evidence-based as a celebrity diet. My last post was a bit of a rant about exactly this reaction to one part of the recent Schools White Paper, where the most unconvincing of evidence was used to support a continuation of the move away from university-led ITE.

However, the thing that really saddens me is that there is a lot of worthwhile thinking and plenty of good ideas throughout not only this White Paper but also the 2010 effort, and many of the other things proposed since then. I always thought Gove’s heart was in the right place (although he was tremendously restricted by an unswerving belief that what worked for him was right for millions of other low SES children, and an ability to consider everyone in disagreement as ignorant). GCSE structures and particularly ‘equivalent’ qualifications did need an overhaul; Progress 8 is better than 5A*-CEM; assessment based on fine levels and vague generic statements did need to go; the pupil premium funding shift has taken a small step to address the inequalities in our education system (thanks to the Lib dems); teachers who find that a traditional approach works for them mostly no longer have to pretend otherwise whenever anyone is watching; there have been some welcome opportunities for interesting experiments within the system; in some ways schools have been freer to make their own decisions based on their individual contexts; and quality of teaching has very clearly and correctly been at the heart, at least of the rhetoric. The sad part is that ministers have repeatedly proven unable to implement reform other than through the creative destruction that (according to David Laws) led to Cameron labelling Gove as a Maoist. Trying to change the whole of the National Curriculum, GCSEs and A-Levels all at the same time is a bit like deciding to perform a major house renovation and then trying to lay expensive new floors and decorate at the same time as re-wiring, changing the plumbing, and knocking a couple of walls down. And living in the bloody thing! Inevitably it has been horrendously disruptive and there are a lot of botched jobs that will take years to sort out. The embarrassing errors in the Science GCSE Core Content, the delay in accrediting GCSEs that are already being taught, the total mess over KS2 assessment guidance, and the debacle over KS1 baseline assessments are some examples that show that even the DfE can’t keep up with their own ministers’ pace, never mind teachers and schools. The introduction of free schools has allowed some tremendous innovation but where a few dozen carefully chosen flowers would have been a lovely addition to the education garden, a thousand of them has been an awfully expensive exercise in random digging and embarrassing weeding.

Attempting to rip up university-led ITE before properly piloting the replacement, just as a population bulge was entering the school system, wasn’t overly clever either. So what of the major proposals for ITE this time around?

There are several ideas in this White Paper that could be really positive developments. I started this post intending to avoid DfE-bashing and the first three paragraphs have been a dismal failure on my part so let’s park that for the moment and try harder.

The White Paper essentially makes five proposals: a clear framework for ITT core content; new quality criteria; guaranteed longer-term allocation of places for the best providers; creation of centres of excellence; replacement of QTS with a new accreditation controlled by Teaching Schools. I’m going to try to look on the bright side, put hope before exprience, and try to imagine the world-leading ITE provision we might be moving towards if these ideas are implemented well. Here are five posts that build of the vision in the White Paper:

  1. What Might (Really) Work? A clear framework for ITT core content
  2. Solving the Puzzle by Finding the Pieces: New quality criteria for ITE
  3. Stability at last: Guaranteed longer-term allocation of places for the best providers
  4. Teaching Hospitals, Professional Development Schools and the Current Fragmented System: Creation of centres of excellence
  5. In for the Long Haul: Replacement of QTS with a new accreditation controlled by Teaching Schools










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.

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.