After more than 15 years working in initial teacher education, I continue to admire the positivity, energy and, above all, the commitment to making the world a better place that new recruits into teaching demonstrate. They make me proud of our profession.
We need to ensure that we keep them in classrooms, and this seems more vital than ever, with a recent survey undertaken by the NEU finding that more than a quarter (26 per cent) of those with less than five years’ experience plan to quit by 2024.
In recognition of the problem, and as part of the government’s teacher recruitment and retention strategy, support for early career teachers (ECTs) is being given higher priority by the Department for Education, a development that was widely welcomed by those of us working in initial teacher education.
NQT problems ahead?
I, alongside many others, attended as many consultation events as possible in order to feed into policy development.
I eagerly awaited publication of the Early Career Framework (ECF) in January of this year. The published document , endorsed by the Education Endowment Foundation, has been widely applauded and described by some as “bold” and as a “game-changer”.
So why, after some time to review and evaluate it, do I feel disappointed? Why do I worry that it might make things worse, rather than better?
1. Was choosing to produce a framework a good idea?
The ECF document identifies defined curriculum content, categorised under the headings “learn that” and “learn how to”.
This format appears to indicate that all early career teachers need and are expected to follow the same developmental curriculum, irrespective of their prior learning or of the subject or age range they teach.
Like all novice teachers, our graduates leave us with a Career Entry and Development Profile (CEDP), which identifies targets for development for their newly qualified teacher (NQT) year. These targets are personalised both to the individual and to the school context that they will enter in their first post. Depending on their prior experience and development, these targets vary enormously.
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For some, they will focus on aspects of subject knowledge; a deeper understanding of aspects of SEND; or refining practice in questioning; while for others the emphasis may be on classroom management or on statutory assessment.
NQTs do not all need the same things. In defining a common curriculum, the ECF risks being a straitjacket rather than a scaffold. It reinforces the mindset that teachers (including those at the start of their careers) do not have the capability or the right to steer their own learning.
My worry is that, through this attempt to guarantee a common entitlement, many NQTs will end up receiving training that they neither want nor need, but will be expected to undertake.
Worse still, they will be frustrated that the areas in which they do feel they need support or in which they are specifically interested are simply “not on the ECF curriculum”.
2. Is the content of the framework appropriate?
The ECF is set out in eight sections, each related to one of the Teachers’ Standards. Numerical and bullet-pointed statements then list what ECTs should know and be able to demonstrate.
Little account appears to have been taken of the fact that NQTs have already evidenced the Teachers’ Standards and have been awarded Qualified Teacher Status by the Teaching Regulation Agency (TRA) on behalf of the secretary of state.
In my experience of NQTs, many are likely to feel that they have already addressed and demonstrated the majority of the statements in the early career “curriculum”. Moreover, they are likely to feel patronised by being expected for instance to: “learn that teachers have the ability to affect and improve the wellbeing, motivation and behaviour of their pupils”.
There appears to be a significant underestimation of what NQTs can already do, and of what ITE programmes already teach, perhaps due to the lack of ITE providers in the expert advisory group?
In some instances, particularly Standard 2 relating to promoting good progress (renamed "How pupils learn" in the ECF), the selected curriculum content statements appear somewhat biased with all of the “Learn that” statements drawing heavily on cognitive science, specifically cognitive load theory.
This appears to assume (incorrectly) that these concepts will not already have been taught during initial teacher education programmes, but also that nothing else of value has any impact on pupil progress.
3. What about subject and age-phase?
In developing their expertise post-qualification, our novice teachers are crying out for subject and phase-specific opportunities. At a recent briefing session on the ECF tender, subject associations, in particular, were dismayed to hear that successful bids were likely to be those that developed “universal” materials, applicable to any early career teacher, in any subject, and teaching any age range.
Indeed, apart from the teaching of early reading, anything subject or age-specific is absent from the framework. Little or no account appears to have been taken of the needs of Qualified Teachers in the early years; in fact, many of the “learn to” statements are clearly inappropriate in terms of early years pedagogy.
4. What about mentoring and coaching?
There are very few mentions of mentoring and coaching in the ECF and yet ECTS who stay and who thrive in the profession consistently report that the support and guidance of experienced colleagues has been the single most important factor in their development.
The document commits to funding time for mentors to support ECTs and to fully funded mentor training. I remain hopeful that this vital component of the strategy will take centre-stage in the implementation phase.
I nonetheless worry that, in asking for “high-quality, freely available ECF curriculum materials” to be developed, the emphasis will be on relatively cheap to produce online training packages, when the evidence is that situated professional learning, guided by an expert coach, with an emphasis on a specific subject or age-phase, would have so much more impact.
5. How will the ECF feel to Newly Qualified Teachers?
The ECF makes a commitment to a two-year programme of structured training and support and to a two-year statutory induction.
Just as at present, NQTs must satisfactorily meet the required standards at the end of this (now two-year) induction period. If they fail to meet the required standards at the end of induction, they will not be permitted to teach in relevant schools, nor to attempt to repeat induction.
As with current arrangements, appropriate bodies will have oversight of assessment paperwork and quality assurance, over the whole induction period (two years).
Although the ECF clearly states that it is not and should not be used as an assessment framework, I believe that it sends a confusing message. In choosing ECF curriculum content statements and arranging them under the headings of the Teachers’ Standards, while also requiring NQTs to successfully pass induction, through demonstrating (again) that they can meet the Teachers’’ Standards, it is highly likely that the framework will take on the role of a checklist, or audit of elements, which have to be evidenced and “passed”.
Over and above this, a high-stakes two-year induction involving scrutiny, form-filling, observation and visits by an appropriate body will not feel like an attractive proposition.
The negative impact of feeling that they are still not fully qualified, two years after the award of QTS, may well undermine any positive impact that should result from increased training and non-contact time (time which is likely to be taken up by training in any case).
In some unscrupulous schools, it may even be used as a means to stop early career teachers from raising any concerns, not to mention the complications that will arise from a growth in 12-month NQT contracts (by which time they will only be halfway through induction).
I doubt that it will decrease the numbers who choose to leave and who give their reason as the pressure of constant scrutiny.
What do I wish had happened instead?
I try to be a positive voice. I respect the goodwill and positive motivations of those involved in the ECF and welcome the additional funding that I am sure has been hard-won.
So, what would I have liked to see instead of the current framework?
Firstly, I would have liked the award of QTS at the end of training to draw a line under any further need to demonstrate the Teachers’ Standards. The process of achieving QTS, as it currently stands, requires the recommendation, validation and support of both school-based teacher mentors and ITE providers, and the confirmation of the Department for Education, so why does it need to be revisited and the same standards re-evidenced two years further down the line?
Such a decision would remove the need for induction as further assessment and scrutiny, and transform the first two years of teaching into simply an early career period, when entitlement to further training and development would be statutory. Observations of teaching would still be required, but as formative, coaching opportunities which are not muddled up with accountability and assessment.
I would maintain an entitlement to further training, and fix a ring-fenced cost per NQT, but would give ECTs the freedom and agency to decide, in collaboration with their mentor, how they wished to enact their entitlement, according to their needs and interests and those of their employing school.
This might be through membership of a Subject Association, undertaking further study, visiting and learning from other schools, independent research, attending conferences, school-based research. As long as there was evidence that key objectives had been addressed, and that the development of all NQTs had been facilitated and protected. I would give schools, rigorously overseen by appropriate bodies, greater autonomy and trust in knowing what was best and most appropriate for individuals.
This would send a clear and positive message to new teachers about their importance and their value, without the current muddle surrounding their teacher status.
Finally and most importantly, I would significantly invest both time and money in those school-based staff who have a mentoring and coaching role, without whom none of the essential support and development is possible. I believe that in doing so, as well as retaining more ECTs, we would also retain more of these experienced staff in the profession, buoyed up by their own entitlement to further development, and by the professional respect properly afforded to them for their pivotal role in supporting the next generation of teachers.
Jan Rowe is head of initial teacher education in the school of education at Liverpool John Moores University