We need a review of initial teacher education – just not this one and not now

A review of initial teacher training could be a chance to revitalise the sector - but the Department for Education risks repeating old mistakes, says David Spendlove

David Spendlove is professor of education at the University of Manchester.

Initial teacher education “providers” are not unfamiliar with facing difficult challenges but the year ahead may prove too much for some.

Few areas of life have remained unchallenged in dealing with Covid-19 and like many in education, those involved initial teacher education (ITE) were able to adapt and successfully navigate the remainder of the last academic and calendar year. Having managed to supply the teaching workforce with approximately thirty thousand new teachers, and then having successfully adapted programmes to start the new academic year providers might have considered that the worst of the challenges were over rather than they were only just about to begin.

However, the recent severe cutting of bursaries, from the majority of subjects, and news of a further review of ITE and the creation of a new Institute for Teaching means that ITE providers face further instability from these additional challenges at a time when certainty and clarity is needed.

Fixing old mistakes

If the challenge of bursaries and a pandemic were not enough the additional distraction in the form of another unnecessary review of initial teacher education is clear. Ironically, the focus of this latest review is to tackle the “overly complex” nature of the sector, apparently in order to create a “more efficient and effective system”.

The immediate irony being that it is the current government who from 2010 have dramatically attempted to diversify ITE whilst exponentially increasing the number of providers. As such, the review would appear to confirm the failure of the engineered free market approach that has been central to the Department for Education (DfE) mentality of deregulation and competition through diversifying and growing alternative initial teacher preparation programmes.

Predictably the usual suspects of handpicked “experts” have been chosen to provide a completely unrepresentative input for the sector. It seems that DfE, while proclaiming the value of domain specific knowledge and evidence informed approaches, still doesn’t value these attributes when establishing their panels and in the development of policy.

Cloak and dagger

Lack of integrity and subterfuge are now so deeply interwoven into the government’s machinations that I suspect that DfE has forgotten that authentic, intelligent and considered sector reviews can be enlightening and beneficial rather than an echo chamber for reproduction of rhetoric.

Therefore, rather than the latest stage managed review taking place in the middle of a pandemic, what is really needed is an independent, informed and considered in-depth review of initial teacher education. After a decade of treating applicants as a commodity, continual tinkering and market driven principles DfE has ultimately done little to create stability or ensure quality for both applicants or providers within initial teacher education.

Accordingly, a thorough review of ITE, rather than the poundshop variety, would be timely for a considered evaluation of provision that solves problems rather than creates them through placing applicants and providers at the heart of a stable, collegiate, intelligent and high-quality process of recruiting and developing excellent teachers.

Such a review would therefore start by considering the impact upon new teachers, schools and providers of the major reforms which have so far failed to be reviewed or appropriately evaluated. Additionally, we also need to question whether we genuinely want autonomous, critical, reflective and adaptive practitioners who can shape their own teaching repertoire and pedagogy and if not, ask why not, given the current direction of travel is towards a technicised and centralised view of teaching.

Take back control

Most importantly, we need to question what the role of government whims and personal minister’s prejudice should be in policy making, given an unjustified and sustained attempt to marginalise the autonomy and contribution of universities in preparing and supporting teachers.

Any review would also need to examine whether the continuous changes within teacher education can have the desired impact in addressing both the lack of equity with the education system or sustaining improvement in the quality of teaching and learning, as there is little robust evidence to suggest either has been achieved so far.

Inevitably, the challenges of Covid-19 remain significant for all involved in education and the additional unnecessary complexities of changes to bursaries, a new Institute of Teaching and a further review of provision simply adds additional needless challenges and uncertainty to those involved within initial teacher education.

Quite simply it appears that after a decade DfE still does not know and has yet to establish a clear way of managing the direction, demand, supply and quality of education for new teachers and at the end of this next review this is likely to remain the same.

3 responses to “We need a review of initial teacher education – just not this one and not now

  1. Those of us who have for many years been involved directly or indirectly with ITE, have witnessed the slow and gradual dismantling of ITE as we have known it, noting the direct parallels with other public sectors. This comes as no surprise – as will the subsequent piecemeal, uncoordinated and ‘make it up as we go along’ approach to rebuild from the resultant further ruination we are about to witness.

    But as Spendlove points out, now is not the time! The spectacular degree of confidence being exhibited, that believes creating alternative models to address the perceived weaknesses of existing teacher education provision, will be straightforward, is as unfounded as that which underpins other even bigger government imposed changes in society. At best it is pure arrogance. At worst it is simply the next step in a deliberate attempt to destabilise and destroy what has for decades, served us at least reasonably well, with the intention of replacing it with hastily dragged together initiatives, led by those with little experience of or respect for the education discipline. It falls in line with what we see as the current modus operandi of slash, burn, starve, disassemble then replace.

    For all its faults, the HEI led teacher education industry – often against all the odds (as referred to) managed to provide a system that both recruited, educated and looked after much of the CPD of teachers. The recent shifting of responsibility onto schools has simply not worked. Further centralised approaches will not help and serve to alienate further those institutions and individuals whose help we need.

    The way forward is as stated unclear. Even to DfE. Let us be under no illusion that DfE as a body wants this. Unlike ever before, this government department is less dependent on its experts and it’s long serving, experienced civil servants, who in the past have been valued and trusted to advise. Even within the wider civil service, it is recognised as being emasculated and in disarray. Instead this is the work of ministers – some of which are not in the department itself, intent on removing any power and control from those who typically oppose their political leanings. Unlike civil servants, academics are not constrained preventing them from expressing what might be interpreted as political opinion.

    But even within the department, let’s not forget, only recently did we witness the sacking of a Permanent Secretary. That was hugely significant.

  2. It is a great sadness to witness the current state of ITE. There is a long list of DfE initiatives which have contributed to this most of which, in my view, have been purely ideological and not based on evidence. For example, the focus on PGCE route which has either limited or removed the 2 yr degree; the demise of the Teacher Training Agency and most significantly, the move to school centred ITE and the subsequent impact on HEIs. This latter move is in danger of promoting teaching as purely a ‘kit bag’ of classroom techniques, minimising the importance of leading edge educational research to inform a teacher’s continual professional development.

  3. Learner-centred pedagogy has become a lost art in the DFE’s reductionist model of ‘teacher as coach’. While this testocratic model of ‘student as data-point’ remains unchallenged [from outside and from within the profession], education will remain the laughing stock that it has become. DFE’s controlled soundbites to the media: this week’s news bulletin was a new ‘catch-up Tsar’. Come on now, really!
    Professor Bill Boyle; Professor of Education; Chair of Educational Assessment; Director, Centre for Formative Assessment Studies [CFAS], University of Manchester [1989-2014]. Education Adviser, The World Bank [2014 – current]. Technical Adviser [pro bono], Many Faces in Teaching [https://mfit.productions]

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