With applications to initial teacher training widely reported as being over 30 per cent down on this time last year, it’s a time for cool heads and minds. We need practitioners and government working together to provide solutions, both locally and nationally. Yet instead the approach from the centre seems to be: 'Keep doing more stuff' – at a seemingly frantic pace.
The current focus from government has put providers of initial teacher training sharply in its sights, with extraordinary scrutiny of recruitment strategies. In short, the DfE seems to think we in ITT are collectively rejecting too many trainees. All rejections are now having to be reconsidered to confirm that this applicant should really be rejected. Despite providers having rigorous selection process (in our case highlighted in our recent Ofsted report), and with course leaders being as flexible as possible in trying to recruit students with the potential to become good and outstanding teachers, this is adding a further layer in the recruitment process.
Alongside this a further initiative - the cost of a Ucas application has been reduced to £1, with refunds to those who have already dutifully paid their £24 this year.
Also, the Professional Skills Test (the "QTS tests"), which add an additional and perhaps unnecessary barrier to potential teachers (who already must have GCSE maths and English, or equivalent qualifications), have now been returned to the position of "have as many attempts as you need', with three free and rebates to those who have already taken more than one attempt this year.
In addition to this, a plethora of "recruitment events" are popping up around the country, from hotels to popular coffee shops, to talk about teaching, help with applications, find out about funding and more. Others are online, but from experience the same groups, often in very small numbers, move around these events, which are often duplicating events that are already established and successful in a region, led by other providers and their partners.
Finally, although there are still several months to go before a new academic year begins in September, the requirement for applicants to teaching to have experience in school has been removed and providers can no longer reject an applicant on this basis. This, in particular, is perhaps the most divisive in the teacher training community. Given the previous moves, questions are rightly being asked about ensuring the quality of those entering the profession.
Lowering the bar?
With regard to quality, we do need to remember that even while it may seem to many that the bar has been lowered, the entry qualifications to teaching are far higher than in earlier times. Speaking from direct experience in a university with courses recently achieving Ofsted's highest accolades, we are seeing some truly inspirational teachers entering the profession – and many of our partners in schools would confirm that view.
With this in mind, what are we to do in this challenging period? Whatever we decide, this needs to be done collectively.
Finally, we must surely acknowledge that this is not just about getting into teaching, but vitally about retaining teachers in the profession, with around 40 per cent leaving within the first five years in the job. This brings us perhaps to the "elephant in the room", with an acknowledgment that we need a profession that is seen as one of the most attractive careers available to the brightest and most inspirational applicants. We need to bring a halt to unremitting change, with a focus on what applicants, trainee and qualified teachers repeatedly and consistently say they need. That is a career where they are valued, have regular professional development and support, competitive graduate salaries and conditions and are trusted as the experts in their field.
Yes, we want high standards, but also not at the expense of the health and wellbeing of teachers and pupils alike. Am I the only one wondering over the fact that at the same time as we hear more and more about the stresses caused by the ongoing changes to give us the "essential" rigorous exam system, we need to allocate £300 million to transform mental health services in schools to counter the effects? Cart, horses?
The teaching profession is facing unprecedented challenges as the end of another decade of relentless upheaval approaches. It needs something more than the usual "20-20 visions" and yet more reform.
Mark Heaton is recruitment lead for teacher education at the Sheffield Institute of Education