‘We need to project the mature intellectualism that defines our love for initial teacher education and teaching in general’

11th December 2015 at 11:41
Teacher training
The idea that School Direct promotes an ‘anti-intellectual’ view of teacher training is misleading, writes a leading teacher trainer

The current ITT allocations model, a personal passion, but usually a rather niche subject, has moved to educationalist conversation point number one in recent weeks, aided by the Twitter campaign to save the renowned Cambridge History PGCE and the accompanying debate.

While it is welcome that ITT enjoys this refreshingly high profile during a period when recruitment and retention is an undisputed challenge, it has been alarming to see the false dichotomy of school and university set up by many commentators, and the damaging generalisations about both university and school-based ITT being shared by some.

If there has ever been a time when we have needed to sing the praises of the wonderful work we do and share the excitement, breadth and variety of the teaching profession, it is now.

Generalisations are the scourge of our sector. Schools are not all one thing, nor are universities; neither can be generically labelled or defined and nor should they be; that is why it is so surprising to see some of the attacks on the School Direct route.

The claim that an ‘anti-intellectual’ view of teacher training is being promoted with the increase of School Direct is misleading, as are the many suggestions that School Direct is an apprenticeship, or that courses led by schools are generic and without subject specialism. My fear is that those reading these comments, some from respected academics, will misunderstand and see a divided sector, or worse, believe that school training is somehow inferior.

All ITT providers must meet the same statutory criteria: there must be a second contrasting placement, trainees must be supported and prepared to meet the Teachers’ Standards and they must ‘demonstrate a critical understanding of developments in the subject and curriculum areas, and promote the value of scholarship’. These are a given, happily.

The current allocation model is a partial improvement; it removed the lengthy delays for those of us who over-recruited last year (sometimes up to six weeks for a response on each additional place, by which time we had often lost the strong candidate or the option of the place). This particularly affected primary, history and English, where we could have recruited many more and had to turn down high-quality applicants.

The issue is that the idea of controls and courses closing early has caused fear in the sector and an unnecessary sense of competition, with concerns about the less scrupulous filling with early applicants to beat the controls, rather than holding out for quality. We are all acutely conscious of impending controls and trying to eliminate unnecessary delays and bring forward interviews, which is clearly less than ideal.

Much of the issue is, however, semantic. Initial lower numbers at School Direct are an "underfill", or "recruitment failure", whereas Cambridge University’s decision to hold out for quality applicants was seen as "rigorous" and a sign of quality.

I am privileged to interview many prospective teachers and am often humbled by the wealth of experience and the professional backgrounds that people bring. Our applicants have chosen School Direct as they are already professionals and want to work as teachers from day one, actively selecting our route into the profession.

In our current gifted cohort, we have a broad range of artists, writers, lawyers, youth workers, accountants, higher level teaching assistants, civil servants and even a paediatric cardiothoracic surgeon, all of whom have trusted us to support them in professional transition from one career to another.

Did the prospect of a salary, career route and being part of a professional staff body from day one encourage those talented individuals into teaching? Of course. Would many of them have become teachers if they had had to return to university for a full-time course? In all likelihood, no. Does this mean that School Direct is right for everybody? Again, no. Having a range of training options to suit those considering teaching is surely a strength of our sector.

It is exciting that these kind of people are attracted to our profession and feel able to join it via a school-based route – every time I read that there is a "race to the bottom" or that choice has been removed from applicants by the new system, I think of our applicants and know that that does not apply here.

Rather than sniping at one another on Twitter, or publishing articles that favour one route over the other, let’s celebrate the well-documented and exciting rise of research interest and expertise within schools.

The Teaching Schools movement, setting up centres of educational research and training led and attended by current practitioners; research and development positions; and specialist leaders of education, often subject experts, have led to a vast increase in capacity to lead training of this kind in addition to many of the excellent established PGCE courses.

Discussing the Cambridge PGCE, history teacher Michael Fordham acknowledges the capacity and great work of our history leads, John Blake and Zoe Howells, in establishing a similarly powerful subject network and training community – proof perhaps that not all commentary needs to be hostile and that there are rewarding links and crossover between the two camps of ITT provision.

As a provider, I am incredibly lucky to be able to draw on the considerable expertise of staff and school leaders across our federation, as well as to enjoy close contact with our talented mentors and ensure a rich and intellectual approach to initial teacher education (the word "training" is insufficient here).

We have created cohorts of subject specialists, supported by our expert subject tutors, ensuring subject remains at the heart of all we do.

Our subject leaders are phenomenal experts in their fields, who care passionately about the fine balance of subject and pedagogical content and the need for practical guidance, supported by critical reflection. Plus, they spend the majority of their time in schools.

Criticality and subject-based research are core elements of our provision and we have developed a close and effective relationship with our partner university, Goldsmiths, which provides the Masters level modules of our course, designed to complement and support our training and beginner teachers’ school-based experience, rather than merely to be an intellectual add-on.

As part of our offer, we encourage beginner teachers to attend the fantastic subject courses with the Prince’s Teaching Institute, another institution led by teachers, for teachers, with tremendous links between academic and best classroom practice.

Our beginner teachers are in school Monday to Wednesday, spend a full day engaged in training, research or sharing best practice at our central training centre on a Thursday, and return to school each Friday with fresh expertise, subject knowledge and pedagogical strategies to apply.

We have found this to be a rewarding, successful model and one that those of us working on the course constantly evaluate, shape and debate to ensure we are providing the very best introduction to our profession.

The great risk is that the current over-generalised discourse meant to critique the allocation model may have the unintended and undesirable effect of putting great applicants off our sector, regardless of route.

We need to project and share the mature intellectualism that defines us all, our love for initial teacher education and education more generally and all the things that make this vocation so supremely rewarding.

It’s undeniable that as providers we need clearer messages on controls and a guarantee that those already shortlisted, interviewed or made an offer can be responded to with integrity. It would also be helpful to have a guarantee that in the case of someone withdrawing or failing a skills test, we could re-recruit to that place, so that courses remain viable.

By all means call for a change to the allocations system, but please let’s not damage ourselves in the process.

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