This article is more than 7 years old

TEF and the importance of university teachers

In all the discussion about the Teaching Excellence Framework, the voice of teachers is getting lost. What can the HE sector learn from schools and their more organic and vibrant community shaping their future?
This article is more than 7 years old

Andy Westwood is Vice Dean for Social Responsibility in the Faculty of Humanities and Professor of Government Practice at the University of Manchester

In all of his thinking and discussions about how to improve the quality of teaching in universities, I wonder if Jo Johnson has found time to speak to Andrew Adonis or Michael Gove? I ask because both have tried to answer the same challenge for teaching in schools.

Both introduced or accelerated a barrage of metrics and rankings – GCSE performance, Ofsted gradings and various institutional incentives and flexibilities as well. Both also wanted to increase the attractiveness of teaching as a career and encourage the best university graduates to become teachers. Intriguingly, both also saw the importance of thinking about getting different people into the classroom and letting them evangelise about how much they liked it.

So given the focus on improving teaching and increasing institutional incentives for good teaching in higher education, it is worth considering what they did (and didn’t) try to do. In policy terms there were a raft of green and white papers from Gove’s The Importance of Teaching to any number of initiatives (including Teach First and the Academy programme) launched from Tony Blair’s No. 10 (or “Tony Zoffis” as the Times Education Supplement used to characterise such policies from Blair and his then education adviser, Andrew Adonis).

Teach First has been at the heart of both their thinking, but placed alongside broader system reform including higher entry qualifications for teacher training, and much to universities’ annoyance, real scrutiny (including from Ofsted) and competition amongst teacher training routes. Teach First has since mushroomed in size and influence.

It is expensive and relatively small scale and it will never solve teacher supply problems on its own. But it is totemic in its wider influence on policy and classroom practice. I have written before about its impact and spreading influence, as its graduates move on to new roles in think tanks, senior civil service positions and into various areas of school leadership.

But just as influential are grassroots organisations like researchED – a movement aiming to build research literacy and awareness at the front line of teaching. Its founder Tom Bennett now runs events through the UK as well as in the US and Australia and is Nicky Morgan’s behaviour ‘Tsar’ advising on teacher training at DFE.

Others are in and out of DFE – though rarely off twitter, social media or various teaching blogs including Daisy Christodolou (@daisychristo) John Blake (@johndavidblake), Laura McInerney (@miss_mcinerney), Tom Bennett (@tombennett71), Jonathan Simons (@PXEducation), Sam Freedman (@samfr), Andrew Old (@oldandrew) and many more besides. Head teachers too are engaging with daily debates on teaching issues such as Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) and @HeadsRoundtable. Follow them and you’ll see what I mean. They all hail from across the political spectrum, but all received regular name-checks in Michael Gove’s speeches.

In schools this is fuelling a revolution in thinking and pedagogy. And it’s difficult to know where it will end up. New teachers blog, write and tweet about their experiences. They are excited about what they are doing and what they are learning. They are reflecting, researching and thinking and they are having an enormous impact on education policy. This isn’t just policy created by ministers or by committees or academics, but by social media and a dynamic exchange of thinking and practice.

If we want to improve teaching in universities we might want to take more notice, and imagine how it might contribute to Jo Johnson’s emerging thinking about the TEF. As with so much policy thinking, “you wouldn’t start from here” is a familiar refrain: flawed datasets, contested links between chosen metrics and what happens inside the classroom and several articles – or leaps – of faith made along the way.

So what might translate to HE from the revolution in schools? Firstly all this shows that if teaching is to improve, or high standards become more commonplace, then it is going to need wider cultural change to supplement the top down policymaking. Even if the TEF develops smoothly and we end up with the right mix of metrics and qualitative data, and it finds an effective way of connecting good teaching to fee increases, it may not make any difference at all to the quality of teaching in universities – in the lecture theatre, laboratory, studio or classroom. Worse, it may breed resentment and disaffection rather than dynamism or change amongst those that it intends to promote.

Teach First, researchED and social media in a broader technological sense, are all disruptive innovations. Challenging established thinking and practice in staffrooms and classrooms. We might not need to improve the supply of the best graduates into academia (many are already there), but we might want to give them more support and a greater voice in discussions about what happens in the classroom. We might want to understand their career ambitions better, and also understand what they need to be better teachers as well as researchers. We might want them to disrupt some of our traditional academic and workplace pedagogy, as well as the hierarchies that exist within and across higher education.

Of course there are already teachers, lecturers, researchers – and vice chancellors – engaging in social media debates. There are practitioners and bloggers and sometimes they are also a part of the debates about schools. But it doesn’t seem to me that this has yet become as influential in classroom practice as it is in schools. Nor does it appear that ministers or sector leaders are listening or using them quite as much as they might.

If we are going improve teaching in universities, or the attractiveness of teaching as a career, we will need more than top down institutional incentives, selected metrics and regulatory interventions. We need the enthusiasm and dynamism as well as the disruptive innovation that we see today in schools.

We need great teaching and we need great teachers talking about the conditions in which that will happen.

6 responses to “TEF and the importance of university teachers

  1. “We need the enthusiasm and dynamism as well as the disruptive innovation that we see today in schools. We need great teaching and we need great teachers talking about the conditions in which that will happen.”

    Ironically, that’s what we had – to a greater or lesser extent – with the old Learning & Teaching Support Network and its Discipline focused Subject Centres. Following on from Dearing, who realised that the genuine enhancement of teaching has to be focused on the ‘shop-floor’ and at the discipline level, and that generic, top-down approaches are unlikely to work.

    Yes, there were problems with the LTSN and, subsequently, with the Subject Centres when they were unhappily merged into the HEA. But as a vehicle for doing what is stated at the end of the article, they were very successful.

  2. Although i agree that universities should learn from schools, what they should learn is not to make the same mistakes. I am in education and unfortunately i do not see all the positive developments the author is talking about. Are they happening around us? What i see is a teaching profession tired, lost, angry and defeated. At the same time, i agree, there are pockets of innovation which make use of technology to ‘disrupt’ the system. However, there are two problems then: first there is a technological skills gap between the technology savvy ones and their colleagues (either in schools or in universities). Second, Christensen, who is the father of the idea of disruptive innovation, is very clear that for that to happen the entire system has to change. In the case of schools, a really disruptive innovation will not add to something, such as the way we teach, but disrupt the way we assess learning. I am curious to see whether the technology listed in the article and the various gurus who are bringing about this change are going to change the system or just create a virtual teacher room. A final point to make is that, despite so much talking about teaching, we still lack a consensual definition of what it is and how it works. So these are interesting times, let’s see what is interesting about them.

  3. Another difference between schools and universities is that while the former remains, for the most part, a state-funded and/or owned national system, in English HE the government is committed (at least rhetorically) to competition and the market. Perhaps, therefore, the conditions for sharing ideas and innovations among different universities are not as favourable as they are in schools? Or perhaps that overestimates the effect of pressure not to aid the competition.

  4. Some Universities are obsessed with recruiting staff based on research ability rather than teaching ability, these two elements are completely different and I’m sure the industrial psychologist in our community will point out that there is a difference between a researcher and a teacher/translator.
    A minority of students attend the Russell group where I agree that research is of utmost importance, a larger majority attend none Russell group universities who want to be taught by people who can inspire and make a difference in there experience.

  5. I agree with Christina. The school teaching road is the last higher education wants to go down with its competence-based training in delivering the National Curriculum. For an alternative to it see the National Union of Teachers Stand Up For Education website with ideas of building a ‘democratic professionalism’ as an alternative way forward.

  6. Alas, the only person John Johnson has been speaking to about teaching policy appears to be Sir Michael “All the metrics” Barber.

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