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'The government should rethink its teacher training policy if it wants to improve social mobility'

Professor Joy Carter, vice-chancellor of the University of Winchester and chair of the UK Chapter of the Colleges and Universities of the Anglican Communion, writes:

Teaching is the business of transforming lives. As vice-chancellor of the University of Winchester I see hundreds of trainee teachers pass through our doors every year and every one of them is committed to improving the life chances of the young people they hope to work with.

This week the House of Lords debated the role of primary and secondary schools in improving the UK’s social mobility. If we are to succeed in making it easier for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve success in all fields, it is vital that we think carefully about teacher training. Not only are teachers the most enthusiastic cheerleaders for the abilities of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, they are the people with the greatest impact on outcomes for those pupils.

The government must match its commitment to improving social mobility with an equal commitment to addressing serious concerns held in the Higher Education sector about a number of its policies. In particular there is unease about School Direct, a policy which is undermining the viability of important institutions within the English education system and potentially threatening the quality of the teaching received by the pupils most in need of excellent support.

Classroom-based routes into teaching have an important part to play, but we cannot allow them to jeopardise university institutions. Indeed, successful routes such as Teach First rely enormously on the expertise and networks of universities such as Canterbury Christchurch.

Anglican foundation institutions have some of the most highly-respected and long-established education departments, and we provide a large proportion of the country’s teacher training capacity. The latest figures show 24 per cent of primary places and 12 per cent of secondary places allocated for 2014 entry will be provided at Anglican universities, or by schools in partnership with Anglican universities.

At Winchester we are proud of the high quality of our teacher training – consistently rated “outstanding” by Ofsted. Our trainee teachers experience the best of both worlds – a chance to develop research skills and reflective practice working with university-based experts, and the opportunity to experience teaching on the ground in a range of supportive school placements.

Our postgraduate trainee teachers spend 120 days in school during their one-year course, and gain experience of at least two schools, as well as meeting pupils in a wide range of contexts outside their assessed placements.

Anglican institutions have embraced the new School Direct route into teaching – and indeed now account for 18 per cent of School Direct places. But the rapidity of the government’s move to School Direct is jeopardising the stability of these institutions and all the advantages offered by this training route.

The unpredictable reductions in the core allocations mean financial planning is difficult, especially when universities receive less funding for School Direct places. One provider has already had to cease its specialist Religious Education provision due to the small numbers allocated. At Winchester 12 per cent of our intake last year was for teacher training, and for some of our fellow institutions this figure is a lot higher, so we need some certainty to plan for the future.

As well as making planning difficult for universities, we have concerns that the rapid expansion of School Direct will threaten the short-term supply of qualified teachers, at a time when demand is increasing.

The under-recruitment via the School Direct route for 2013-14 was significant: only 70 per cent of the allocation was filled. This compares to 92 per cent of postgraduate allocation to universities. It is unclear whether prospective trainees are as keen on the school-only route despite the extensive marketing campaigns.

The Anglican foundation universities remain committed to playing our part in the English education system, producing excellent teachers equipped to transform the lives of the most disadvantaged pupils, and to do so on the basis of Christian values. We ask the government to rethink a policy which is threatening that contribution, and putting at risk the very tools with which social mobility can be achieved.

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