Is the government picking favourites for university-led teacher training?

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Given the recent speed of change in higher education policy, not to mention education policy more generally, perhaps we can all be forgiven for missing the odd announcement or two. Yet as a recent example shows, those announcements that slip through our limited attention can have significant ramifications, and should set alarm bells ringing.

Back in March, the government produced its now-abandoned White Paper “Educational Excellence Everywhere”. Among more headline-grabbing proposals about forced academisation of all schools, there was a commitment to continue moving away from university-based Initial Teacher Training (ITT) towards a more schools-based model.

There was yet some reassurance for universities, though, with the White Paper stating that “there will continue to be an important place for high-quality universities in ITT with a strong track record in attracting well-qualified graduates. We want the best universities to establish ‘centres of excellence’ in ITT”. The benefit to being recognised as a ‘centre of excellence’, we were told, would be multi-year allocations of ITT places. These are currently allocated by government on a yearly basis, causing considerable challenges for planning and budgeting. The multi-year allocations would allow providers to plan more effectively, give greater security, and an enhanced reputation for those recognised compared to their competitors.

Following any such policy announcement one might expect a consultation to be launched to seek views on how these “high-quality universities” might be identified or providers to be given indicative metrics on which they may be judged and asked to feedback. Instead, nothing happened, at least not publicly for a wide audience to have their say. No announcement of a public consultation came, and no indicative metrics were produced.

The guidance produced in June on how to apply for ITT allocations for 2017/18 made no mention of multi-year allocations, and many assumed the whole idea had gone away. Then at the end of September, guidance on the 2017/18 methodology was published, and providers were given their respective allocations. Except some were given one year’s worth, others got three.

The allocation methodology document listed the performance criteria used to identify “high quality” providers to whom multi-year allocations were given but, to date, transparency has not extended further than this. A list of the chosen providers has yet to be produced, and individual providers have not been given data explaining on what basis this judgment was made.

It is hoped, following lobbying, that this data is now forthcoming. Once it is made available it should be for the whole sector to comment and respond to whether the performance criteria listed (degree classifications of entrants, Ofsted ratings, the proportion of trainees in employment in a state-funded school at any time within two academic years after qualification and providers performance against previous allocations) are decent measures of quality of ITT provision. Imagine if no such opportunities for consultation and comment had been given on the TEF!

ITT provision is just another area where policies based on the government’s differential judgements of quality are being pursued. Since the Home Secretary’s announcement at Conservative Party Conference in September on student visa policy, the sector has been rife with speculation as to how “quality” might be defined; TEF ratings, compliance, research income, the list and speculation goes on. At the very least the sector expects to be asked what it thinks, and for any process designed to be transparent, if not completely egalitarian. If the ITT allocation story is anything to go by this should not be just assumed, despite ministerial reassurances.

The lack of clarity around who has been awarded three-year ITT allocations and why has lead to questions about whether government choices were instead based on perceptions of prestige rather than objective judgements of quality. This is unhelpful and divisive, especially at a time when the sector should be collectively uniting in developing viable policy alternatives to the issues facing UK higher education. While the most pressing of these is international student visa rules, it is nonetheless likely that even greater challenges will appear on the horizon. Even if we can’t all agree on a collective way forward, the call for transparency in advance of decisions being taken should be greater than ever.

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