Last week, PGCE history courses run by some of the most prestigious universities in the country, including mine, faced closure because a national limit for the number of trainee teachers had been reached. It looked as if we would not be able to recruit students because of this cap.
Thankfully, the “Twitterstorm” created by those deeply concerned about the threat to these PGCEs, and the potential of not being able to recruit excellent candidates, helped the Department for Education to think again.
History courses judged by Ofsted to be of outstanding quality were under threat because many universities had not yet finished interviewing candidates when the cap was reached. Eight universities, most but not all being members of the Russell Group, were told that they could recruit up to 75 per cent of the number of students that they had been allocated in the 2015-16 cycle.
While this change of policy is welcome it will still mean that courses at these institutions may not be viable because of the reduced numbers. It also means that many potential applicants who want to follow a higher education route into teaching will not be able to do so. Current government policy promotes an anti-intellectual view of teacher education and this risks the teaching profession being shunned by the sort of people that it desperately needs to attract.
The rate at which PGCE history places have been filled for courses starting in 2016 suggests that some previously small courses have recruited applicants well above their 2015-16 allocations. Understandably they were offering places as soon as possible in the recruitment cycle. The potential consequence of this is that courses that were not rated as outstanding by Ofsted will grow at the expense of those courses that are rated outstanding.
Before the recruitment policy was revised, other providers who took a more measured approach to recruitment in order to try to ensure that the limited places available were offered to the best applicants found themselves unable to offer places because of the national cap on university places.
This is absurd but not surprising given the ill-conceived teacher recruitment policy, which will result in many applicants being denied the opportunity to choose from the full range of different training options. Many of the most thoughtful prospective teachers decide to work as teaching assistants or cover supervisors. If their experience is positive they will then apply for PGCE courses in December or January. In subjects where there are relatively few applicants for the number of places available this probably isn’t a problem should they decide they want a university-led PGCE course.
For popular subjects such as history and English the danger is that the university-led option will be closed and applicants will be forced to seek a School Direct route or postpone their application for a year. Potential teachers are told by the NCTL website: “whether you’d like your training to be led by a school or a university, there’s a training course to suit you”. The capping of university-led provision makes a mockery of this claim.
For some, a School Direct training course provides an appropriate route into teaching. Applicants can apply to a school that suits their needs in terms of location and that may lead to an offer of employment. However, many schools wish to focus on teaching and are very happy with university-led PGCE partnership arrangements. Many potential teachers understand the benefits of joining a course where they will be part of a cohort of other subject specialist students, where they will be taught by tutors with many years of successful professional practice and by tutors who are experts in curriculum development and some who lead national and international research designed to improve educational opportunities for all.
Around 20 years ago, Richard Pring, a former professor of education at both the universities of Oxford and Exeter, wrote that PGCE programmes should prevent student teachers from becoming “blindly apprenticed to existing practice” by promoting connections with “a wider network of intellectual life where critical enquiry, deliberation, questioning, speculation and research are central rather than peripheral activities”.
Forcing applicants to follow a School Direct PGCE poses a real threat to the continuing existence of university-based expertise in teacher education. Some universities have already made the decision to close PGCE courses. Given the uncertainty over future allocation of places others will probably follow suit.
The capacity to nurture the critical enquiry skills that new teachers need in order to become outstanding may soon be a thing of the past. I’m sure that I am not alone in sincerely hoping that this is not the intended outcome of the Department for Education’s misguided teacher recruitment policy.
Dr Nigel Skinner is head of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Exeter