Thoughts on the Carter Review: the Unenforceable Sec's Machine
Last week we finally got Carter, specifically the Carter review into initial teacher training. The review was commissioned by Michael Gove and once he departed, there was nothing to do but let it fly like a launched boomerang and see if anyone would catch it when it returned, assuming anyone still wanted it. I think it has merit, and is worth considering.
I gave evidence to the Carter panel twice – gladly – on behaviour and education research. Reform of teacher training is vital, in my opinion. What we have is often good, sometimes great, but it is patchy and in many contexts, inadequate. We can talk about teaching as if we valued it slightly higher than sainthood, but we sometimes treat its training almost as an afterthought. I mean that nationally, and as a profession – I get a lot of ITT providers chewing their beards when I say things like this, like I just cussed their mums personally. Don’t take it personally: none of us are optimal, including me.
For me, three of the great holes in ITT are: behaviour management, subject knowledge and research literacy. The first two were almost all I worried about in my first year of education, and nationally, behaviour still remains one of the biggest problems facing teachers, and one of the biggest catalysts to leaving the profession. Research literacy, if you know me at all, is my current crusade with, among other things, the researchED project. Teachers frequently lack the ability to analyse and assess the veracity of the countless claims made on them in the name of research, and consequently find it hard to access research that is actually relevant to their needs. And subject knowledge is another downed fence. How many of us are specialists in our subject? Or could achieve an A* at GCSE/A-level if we sat it with the students? If the teacher doesn’t own their field, we can hardly blame the Billys and Sameeras in our classrooms for not mastering it either.
Frankly the state of those three is patchier than a beggar’s quilt. Some providers do it well, many don’t, and many of them pretend they do and get quite angry if you suggest that the status quo isn’t rosy.
So what does Carter say? Well, broadly, I think he listened. Some people I know got peeved that he hadn’t personally called them and asked what they thought, which is an accusation that can usually be made about education (where teachers get asked what they think roughly as often as Halley’s Comet appears on a Tuesday), but on this occasion you can feel the effort as they reached out.
I’ll cover his main conclusions, and thrill you with my thoughts on each one:
The ITT system generally performs well, with room for improvement. He bases this on, among other things, Ofsted inspection ratings, where a staggering 96 per cent of providers were deemed to be Good or better. Now, you’ll forgive my churlishness, but if an ITT system with as many holes as ours (see above) appears to be bloody marvellous on inspection, I might politely suggest somebody has been chewing the funny tea leaves. Somewhere we’ve stumbled. Funnily enough, we judge schools substantially by student results, which are externally assessed. And ITT providers? That are largely masters of their own student assessments? I’ll just leave that there, you do with that fact what you will. They also use student satisfaction surveys (that indisputable science) and an NCTL survey that boasted an 89 per cent ‘Good’ response for ITT….on a 20 per cent response rate. Maybe ITT is brilliant. maybe it isn’t. Who knows? I’m going to just put it out there; I don’t think the scene is brilliant. I think, seen as a whole system, it’s substandard.
Which route into training is best? Cautiously, he sidesteps this hot potato by basically saying, "Oh they’re ALL potentially good, let’s not fight, is that a custard cream, lovely." Anything else would have been lobbing a hand grenade into a lake of hot, bubbling nitroglycerin.
Variable expectations of what constitutes a good ‘initial training’ (a common core) leads him to recommend that a "sector body such as….the College of Teaching" produces an industry standard blueprint of what needs to be known and taught. To be fair, that’s not entirely a bad idea. He returns to the College several times as a possible provider of answers and a vehicle of change. In some ways, this report is fuel for the whole project; something that its architects haven’t been slow to grasp. I’m delighted to see the report singles out good subject knowledge as important. I’m just stunned that we ever got to a place where we could ever doubt such a thing; that we could assume teachers could be one page ahead, or no pages ahead, and still lead learning. He recommends that subject knowledge be a substantial part of ITT, which I’ll applaud; set as homework, if needs be. And crucially: assessed. There’s no point in telling someone to learn something and hoping they do it. Same rule applies for kids as teachers.
An acknowledgement that ITT is exactly that – initial. For teacher training to be embedded as a culture, it needs to be reinforced throughout a teachers’ entire career – and schools need to meet this obligation. Not with ghastly Insets, but CPD fine-tuned to staff needs, specialisms, subjects, and aspirations.
Evidence-based pedagogy/teaching is highly recommended. Of course, evidence in education is hotter than Hansel right now – I should know, I’m wearing asbestos. Of course, I’ll sound a cautionary bell: evidence-augmented, or evidence-assisted, rather than evidence-based, please. To suggest evidence-based pedagogy is to insist that it all is; and the nature of teaching is that significant swathes of the practice are craft and wisdom. You can’t look for an RCT or case study to justify everything you do. But you can insist that evidence is always part of the consideration; where practice diverges from research, these discrepancies must be accounted for; where evidence exists with a robust base, it must be considered in some way. Or to be more blunt, if the practice runs counter to the evidence, that doesn’t mean the evidence always trumps, but we must understand why they disagree. Happily, Carter supports the push towards research literacy in ITT.
Behaviour management. I’m hugging myself with joy to see that the review listened to what classroom teachers have been saying for years: that behaviour management is hard, and often not taught very well in our current system. Right now you can be thrown to the uniformed wolves, uninformed; overseas teachers come here and boggle at the way our kids are routinely allowed to behave. Supply teachers (who are the scarred, forgotten oracles of our system) will tell you this every time. New teachers will tell you this. But there’s been a vicious conspiracy of silence by the educational establishment, almost always by people who never had to face a hard class, or would know what to do with one. Remember former Behaviour Czar Alan Steer proclaiming that nationally, behaviour was actually quite good? Meanwhile classes shook with incivility, and teachers fled the job within years of starting because their reality was a polar opposite to the fairy story peddled by people who should have known better. The recommendation is that behaviour takes a bigger role in ITT, focusing on practical advice. That’s the key: what do you do if someone tells you to stick your homework up your arse? No more platitudes about "build relationships/show them what respect looks like". What do you actually do? I’ve run the behaviour forum for the TES for years, and I assure you that’s what teachers actually want and need, not inspirational quotes for the day. If someone gives you advice about running a classroom, and they probably couldn’t do it themselves, you’re allowed to just walk away from them laughing. If you like, you can add, "Mate, get a real job."
There were many more recommendations – in fact, for a system that was apparently very good overall, there appear to be a good number of very serious cracks in the plaster. I imagine Andrew Carter would look at a wobbling tower of Jenga bricks and say, ‘Marvellous, look how well it’s standing,’ in his enthusiastic and mannered way. But we know what he really means. The Rubik's Cube of ITT might have a few sides completed, but the rest are pretty scrambled at the moment.
What next? Everything is frozen until after the election. The DfE response is genial and positive, but uncommitted. "Come back after, ooh, May," they say.
And we will. I hope we get Carter.