David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Historically teacher training has sat within, but somehow also outside, the higher education sector in England.

It’s no longer compulsory to train to be a teacher in order to teach in England – in academies, independent schools, and free schools at least – but some kind of teacher training is generally considered to be an advantage.

Neither is it required that a teacher holds a degree – though most do, and it is a prerequisite for some routes to practise.

However routes that included university training and postgraduate qualifications remain popular with trainees, and with schools of all types. So why are they disappearing?

The way it was

For a fair few years, you could confidently expect that your child’s teacher would have a university degree, hold a postgraduate certificate of education (PGCE), and have then undergone a probationary year before achieving qualified teacher status (QTS). Training for a PGCE would involve a teacher-to-be enrolling at a university, with time split between on-campus learning (covering theories of education and more general classroom skills, plus a subject area element for subject specialists) and multiple placements (currently 24 weeks out of the academic year) in nearby schools.

Teacher training provision in universities largely derives from the initial establishment of university “day schools” for teacher training established in 1890 at the university colleges of the day (King’s, Nottingham, Manchester, Cardiff, Newcastle, Birmingham, and what would become the Institute of Education) and the envelopment of municipal teacher training colleges (established either from 1904, or in response to a national shortage of teachers after world war two) into polytechnics and then universities, or – in the case of some church-supported teacher training – into university colleges and then universities in their own right.

The new order

But the days in which universities dominated teacher training have long passed, and the landscape is now far more complex. A primary innovation – the School Centred Initial Teacher Training (SCITT) scheme – has brought training closer than ever to the classroom. SCITTs often (but not always) lead to PGCE awards validated by a university partner but delivered by groups of schools. The exit qualification is QTS.

There are an increasing number of other school-centred routes – including Schools Direct (both a salaried – for those with 3+ years of work experience – and a fee paying option) and a teaching apprenticeship. There’s Teach First, a charity that runs a schools-centred two year postgraduate diploma in education aimed at outstanding graduates who want to qualify as teachers in low income communities. It’s also possible to take an undergraduate degree course that leads to QTS. For convenience in this article, I’ve used initial teacher training (ITT) to refer to any course that purports to teach people how to teach that leads either to a PGCE (or other post-graduate award), QTS, or both.

There are also incentives in the form of bursaries and scholarships for those who wish to become teachers in shortage subjects like sciences, maths, and modern languages. And there is a large and increasing amount of in-service training for teachers, aimed particularly at those early in their career (sometimes called newly qualified teachers, NQT).

The challenge

So why, given this multiplicity of routes, and the gradual softening of requirements, are we struggling to recruit teachers in England?

In short, the work is hard, the pay isn’t great (compared to other graduate destinations, especially for STEM graduates), loads of teachers are leaving the profession and demand (linked to demographic increases) has grown. But there would also be a case to address the path into teaching as well.

As is usual when faced with a crisis, the government has responded with a blizzard of incentives and interventions. Pay, and monetary incentives in areas of particular need, have risen (though arguably not enough) for new teachers – and retention bonuses have been offered to existing early career teachers. However, school funding has not risen to support these enhanced salaries.

Top-down reorganisation

The decision to rethink teacher training – the ITT Market Review (expertly advised by none other than John Blake!) – has also caused problems. In 2021 and 2022 every provider of teacher education in England was reassessed against a new set of DfE criteria, leaving many – including some universities with a long and rich tradition of offering PGCEs – judged not to be of the required quality. The fact that all providers have also been assessed (many in glowing terms) by Ofsted just adds to the confusion.

The new standards (the Core Content Framework) are reductive and stringent but not necessarily controversial in themselves – most notable is an increase in the amount of time trainee teachers are expected to spend in the classroom, enhanced training for teacher “mentors”, and a focus on evidence based approaches to teaching. But the assessment process has caused many problems.

Just 179 of the 240 ITT courses leading to QTS have gained the new accreditation – with providers like Durham, UWE, Sussex, and Cumbria among those losing out. And all appeals have been rejected.

In a time of teacher shortages it seems counterintuitive to be removing opportunities to train – ITT numbers have plummeted, and more than 4,400 places have been lost to the reaccreditation process. Providers can continue to offer training leading to QTS to current students, and existing accreditation will be valid through to 2024. Even so, primary and secondary level teacher training targets have been missed (by an astonishing 41 per cent in for secondary level)

What the evidence says

The National Foundation for Education Research (NFER) has crunched the numbers, and confidently projects that though ITT numbers will rise a little over last year, we are still going to sail a long way under published DfE targets. For 9 out of 17 secondary subject specialisms we will be 20 per cent or more below the target for ITT, while the number of teacher vacancies has risen by an astonishing 93 per cent between February 2022 and February 2023. With recruitment to ITT overall some 20 per cent below the year before the pandemic, we are entering a perfect storm of high demand and low supply.

Many of the hopes of ministers are focused on the new National Institute of Teaching (NIoT) and a number of larger academy chains, who have entered the teacher training market for the first time. But new provision will take time to scale up and it is not clear how the government can be confident about the quality of training on offer at new providers. Higher education providers have fared less well than others, but as universities have long provided the bulk of teacher training the loss of 20 per cent of established university providers will require more than a few new initiatives to replace.

NFER recommends that narrowing the pay gap and keeping teacher pay competitive with other graduate destinations, while ensuring schools actually have enough money to meet pay demands, should be a key facet of government plans to address retention and recruitment – something which teacher trade unions (who are asking for at least an inflationary increase) would certainly agree with.

Action is also recommended on workload and flexible working, to address the widespread phenomenon of teacher burnout. While the attractiveness of the profession will play a part in recruitment, it feels clear that teacher retention seriously needs to be addressed too and these measures should go some way to achieving this.

But it feels clear that the reorganisation and rethinking of teacher training, while clearly well intentioned, has done nothing to address either recruitment or retention and has complicated the path to qualified teacher status without making the route, or the job, any more appealing.

Read more on Wonkhe

David Spendlove covered the inception of the ITT review back in 2020, compared the proposals to Squid Game, and enumerated the five big challenges ITT faces in coming years.

And I reviewed the consultation response summary back in 2021.

Peter Neil described the unique contribution of universities to ITT as a “golden thread”, and with Alex Bols highlighted the continued demand for good teachers as pandemic restrictions began to lift.

UCET’s James Noble-Rogers asked why we were making it harder to deliver ITT in universities.

One response to “What is going on with initial teacher training in higher education?

  1. As someone who went through a full Blairite teacher-training degree (that needed 120CATS for entry) we spent a lot of time of theory on campus that largely went out of the window when it came down to actually being a classroom and learning that your gut and personal judgement is more important than the jumping-through-hoops training. We were often told, for example that we were not there to be the friend of the students and yet I found myself doing a much better job when I relaxed and learned to bring myself and my interests into the classroom instead of being a robot.

    I did have the (mis)fortune of spending a year as a supply teacher and I found this to be hugely liberating. It allowed me to try different methodology and tactics for different learners without the anxiety-inducing constant gaze of an assessor. As successful supply lesson is one you can walk away from!

    With this in mind I wonder if its time we tied the 2 together: make teacher training students also available as supply staff. They’d get paid for their work (eliminating the need for part time jobs) but also have the opportunity to explore lots of different schools across a region as well as subjects outside their specialism. I know we want more specialists but its helpful to see how others do things.

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