Review of ITT must recognise the unique contribution of universities to teacher training

There is no one golden pathway for initial teacher training - but universities are a golden thread in the system, says Peter Neil.

Peter Neil is vice chancellor of Bishop Grosseteste University, and chair of the Cathedrals Group and the UUK/GuildHE teacher education advisory group.

The group leading the recently announced review of the initial teacher training (ITT) “market” in England – which builds on proposals originally made in the DfE 2019 teacher recruitment and retention strategy – has yet to share much detail about its thinking, but is already raising concerns, made public by UCET and here on Wonkhe.

Many of us question the timing of the review, when more stability and support would be welcomed. But now it is happening, this is a moment for universities and schools to highlight the strengths that have helped us work together so positively in the face of the pandemic. Strengths this review should celebrate, if we want to help prepare the teaching profession for the next set of challenges ahead.

Over the past two decades, I have been fortunate to work at teacher educating institutions in each of the UK’s four nations, and experienced multiple reviews of teacher training. Among these, Olser (2005) and DENI (2010) in Northern Ireland, Furlong (2015) in Wales, and Donaldson, and Menter et al. (both 2010) in Scotland.

False dichotomy

All took place in different contexts, but share common threads: firmly locating teacher education in the university sector, recognising the unique and valued contribution higher education makes across a teaching career, and highlighting the complementarity of the expertise of the various contributors – universities, schools and local authorities – in the system.

This recognition has not been shared in England. The Carter Review (2015), took as its starting point that reviewing the different routes to teaching is not helpful. It described diversity of provision as “probably” a good thing. This ambivalence towards the place of universities within teacher education downplays the evolution and development of our courses over many years: courses that recognise education in the broadest sense, rather than the limiting, skills-based model implied in the term “training”.

Teacher education is no longer a dichotomy between theory – traditionally the domain of higher education – complemented by practice undertaken in schools. Higher education institutions work with school-centred initial teacher training (SCITTs) providing quality assurance, governance and academic elements to their programmes. SCITT colleagues work with universities on research projects, steering groups and other organisations. School partners work with universities and SCITTs. The partnership is as strong as the sum of its parts.

Modern teacher training does not fall into neat groups of people who provide training in isolation. We all work in partnership. University partnerships, which often involve many contributors, offer trainees opportunities to experience a wide range of school contexts, from large multi-academy trusts, to faith schools, special education schools and urban to rural settings.

The partnership between HEI’s and schools brings mutual benefits from the professional research rich cultures of universities. It also offers scope to respond to regional and local needs, partnership concerns and to individuals or groups of trainees. It does this while adhering to common standards and guidance, like the Core Content Framework. In short, the complementarity of the various elements of the partnership model is a strength to be retained.

Ofsted has noted that the average school-based partnership had around 50 trainees whereas the university-led provision had an average of 530. Ensuring that there are enough teachers in schools has been a significant challenge over the last decade, often falling short of government targets. A key focus of the DfE’s review must therefore be that we do not destabilise teacher supply, supporting high quality providers to deliver at scale.

Universities have responded quickly and creatively to continued challenges in recruitment. We have the capacity to flex provision and have often done so, when demand has increased and decreased over the years. The sector is watching with interest what effect the recent changes to bursaries will have on recruitment for next year and what impact this might have on the characteristics of the next cohort of trainees, at a time when government policy claims a commitment to levelling-up.

Critical practitioners

This review would be stronger for recognising that there is no single “golden” method where teacher education is concerned. One provider cannot hold all the expertise required. No organisation works in isolation and teacher training is not one size fits all. Teacher trainees come to universities, SCITTs and other partnerships with different needs, varied experience, and diverse cultural and social backgrounds.

The curriculum must be sufficiently broad to allow for flexibility, creativity and serendipity to educate students as rounded professionals, able to think for themselves, to create new knowledge as well as disseminate and implement new pedagogies in their practice. A top-down syllabus with narrow outcomes and no latitude for development, enhancement and creativity will be detrimental both to those who operate under it and those who are the subject of it.

The role of universities in teacher training should be championed. With Ofsted inspections showing that 100 per cent of teacher training in English universities is rated as “good” or “outstanding” the review group should have no intention to dilute the excellent provision on offer and could instead focus on building on current strengths and enhancing the system, the quality of teachers and thereby the experience learners have.

As chair of the joint Universities UK and GuildHE Teacher Education Advisory Group, bringing together university providers of ITT, and also as chair of the Cathedrals Group of universities, all of which have roots in teacher education dating back almost 200 years – I know our members are ready to engage with the review to build on the country’s existing high standards.

Over many years we have created a high-quality higher education system with internationally recognised researchers whose raison d’être is not just to disseminate knowledge but to create it.

The teacher education sector within universities is well placed to bring together partners not just nationally but internationally to provide focus, expertise and evidence to help support the aspiration set out in this latest review. We all want England’s teaching profession to be the best in the world, and to continue educating generations of reflective, critical thinking practitioners.

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