Why universities fear for the future of teacher training

The HE sector is worried recent changes might actually make recruitment harder
28th April 2017, 12:00am
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Why universities fear for the future of teacher training


When graduates see the dark circles beneath teachers’ eyes - and then look at the red numbers in their own bank accounts - it’s little surprise that many may be opting for less stressful, more lucrative careers.

Keeping the teacher training system going is a tall order: every year about 30,000 new trainees are needed and demand is growing as the numbers of school pupils rise. But could it be that some of the government’s policies are making recruitment harder than it needs to be?

The Department for Education’s latest attempt to improve the problems created by its top-down allocations of training places has been greeted with more brickbats. And now there are signs that a succession of such mistakes is forcing higher education providers to consider whether it would be sensible to reduce their “exposure” to the instability of teacher training.

Meanwhile, unease is growing about the offering of generous bursaries to certain graduates. Could the £1 billion spent over seven years not have been used to better effect? Could “bribing” graduates with £30,000 to train possibly undermine the status of teaching? Some even argue that proposals to lengthen the time it takes to qualify as a teacher could - by reducing the influence of universities - actually threaten the long-term status of the profession.

These concerns have emerged largely from universities, which have previously had their central role in teacher training challenged by ministers. But these are the institutions that government will have to continue to rely on to ensure that there are enough well-trained teachers in our schools. Their fears reveal what a difficult job that could be.

Why is initial teacher training back in the education news?

Because the government’s National College for Teaching and Leadership has just changed things again. Training providers were told last week that they may recruit up to 25 per cent more students than they had originally been allocated for certain courses starting in September 2017.

Isn’t it a good thing?

If numbers are low, then of course it seems sensible to give providers the ability to recruit more trainees. Recruitment is already unlimited in the “hard to recruit” subjects, such as maths and physics.

But Rachel Lofthouse, head of education at Newcastle University, says the new flexibility is “too little, too late”.

“They make these seemingly ad-hoc decisions. They say ‘have another 25 per cent’, but that assumes that on the ground that is relatively straightforward,” she says.

“It comes down to small things like do you have the teaching space for that many people? Timetabling in a university is extremely complicated. Universities need more lead-in time than they are being given.” But the fears of university teacher training departments run much deeper.

What else are universities worried about?

Supplying teacher training places is not without risks, and anything that affects demand - whether it is cutting places or even suddenly increasing them - can make the provider’s job very difficult.

“I am managing the extent of my exposure to teacher training,” one unnamed vice-chancellor says. “I want to carry on doing it. But it means that what we are going to sustain has to have market demand. If there is little demand then one manages one’s exposure.”

The same concern prompted Newcastle University to move into providing undergraduate BA education courses two years ago. Allocations may vary, but at least when students are signed up to three-year degree courses, there is some stability in funding.

But hasn’t the government come back round to the idea that universities should play a key role in teacher training?

Apparently, yes. The DfE’s head of teacher supply, Ben Ramm, says it is now taking a “pragmatic” approach and that education secretary Justine Greening recognises the “importance and the value of high-quality university involvement in teacher training” (see bit.ly/LoveTheBlob). But this follows years of attacks on university teacher training departments, with ministers dismissing academics as “the Blob”. So, there is wariness, not least due to some current policies.

Which policies?

Greening wants a strengthened qualified teacher status to be introduced in September 2019. It is understood that this will be based on a White Paper proposal which argues that teachers should only fully qualify after at least two years in the classroom. In a new report for the Higher Education Policy Institute, John Cater, vice-chancellor of Edge Hill University, expresses major reservations. He fears the plan will reduce the demand for university-based courses and that damaging the link between universities and teacher training will change perceptions of the profession.

Cater also criticises government bursaries: “The focus on bursary support for trainees damages rather than enhances the status of the profession. If one has to be ‘bribed’ to the tune of up to £30,000 simply to train, how demanding is the role seen to be and, with stories of teachers wearing body cameras, how unsatisfactory are the working conditions?”

Is the government planning to do anything about the problem?

The government had asked for bids from providers with innovative training models - either university-led, school-led or partnerships - that could ensure a supply of high-quality new teachers in areas that need them most. Bids were offered a three-year allocation, but this is now on hold pending the election.

What do the universities want?

Cater suggests 10 changes are needed, including treating all routes to qualified or accredited teacher status on an equal and fair basis, granting all providers three- to five-year allocations, placing an expectation on all schools to provide placement opportunities for trainees, considering a phased withdrawal of the current bursary system and the introduction of “forgivable fees” - repaying student debt - for those who remain in teaching and perform well.


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