Theory be damned. Just follow the 'how to' guide

19th November 2010 at 00:00
Michael Gove's proposal to push teacher training out of universities and into the classroom is driven by a belief that study of education theory won't help NQTs to deal with a fractious Year 9 on a rainy Thursday afternoon.

The main lecture hall is packed this afternoon with more than 300 students, spanning a range of ages and backgrounds. Still on a high from the morning sessions, they are here to listen to a headteacher talk about the challenges of working in deprived areas and the changing profile of inner-city schools. Excited chatter fills the room as they wait for the speaker to arrive.

These lectures have long been a fixture of postgraduate teacher training courses. The 300 students are all wannabe teachers at London University's Institute of Education (IoE), hoping to soak up as much educational theory as they can before heading out on their school placements to put it into practice.

But today's session - replicated in universities and colleges up and down the country - could be among the last of its kind, if proposals to transform the way we teach teachers come to fruition.

Instead of sending trainee teachers off to university to get a grounding in educational theory, they will go straight into schools to learn while they teach. Instead of building on a foundation of knowledge about how children learn, schools will have responsibility for training teachers from scratch.

This scenario is the consequence of ideas floated by Education Secretary Michael Gove. In a speech to the National College in June, Mr Gove said teacher training should be moved "out of college and into the classroom". Far from being a profession that can be learnt through academic study, teaching is a craft, best learnt "as an apprentice observing a master craftsman or woman", he said.

Aside from how this approach fits in with Mr Gove's aim to raise the status of the teaching profession by implementing a minimum-entry qualification of a second-class degree, teachers have been less than receptive to his point of view. "I'm hugely insulted by this," wrote one teacher on the TES Connect online forum. "I don't trim hair, cut wood or knit! I use an array of methods to accelerate students' learning whilst conducting research into new methods, before disseminating them to the community."

Mr Gove's plan is part of a campaign to bring in a new era of freedom for teachers and schools - from local authorities, from central government and from the heaps of rules, regulations and initiatives that were introduced during the previous government. But is freedom from universities what schools really want?

About 80 per cent of this year's 37,000 trainee teachers are studying in universities. A wholesale shift to a school-based training system would cause unprecedented upheaval.

Shifting Initial Teacher Training (ITT) from universities to schools will not be popular, believes James Noble-Rogers, executive director of the Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers (UCET). He says many schools are reluctant - or unable - to take part in teacher training and taking on such a responsibility would be daunting.

"Would they be forced to train their own?" Mr Noble-Rogers asks. "Many of those that are involved welcome the relationship that they have with universities and would not want to have lead responsibility, and presumably accountability, foisted upon them."

Schools are already involved in mentoring NQTs and overseeing placements undertaken as part of university-based courses, such as the Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) and Bachelor of Education (BEd). School- based programmes, such as the School-Centred Initial Teacher Training (SCITT) and the Graduate Teacher Programme (GTP), place more emphasis on on-the-job learning and trainees spend more time in the classroom, but university tutors still play a huge role in observing and assessing standards. If teachers were to take this on, it would require extra resources.

"If schools are struggling financially, any thought that they should train, mentor, support and guide new entrants to the profession would require serious thought and caution," says Patrick Roach, deputy general secretary of teaching union NASUWT. "We have concerns about scalability and how the system as a whole would be able to meet these demands."

Mr Roach argues that any proposal to remove teacher training from universities is "driven by ideology and an attempt to reduce costs" rather than raising standards. He is also suspicious of introducing the idea of apprenticeships into teaching.

"We wouldn't want to see the situation where teaching is reduced simply to a craft and on-the-job learning," he adds. "We know that teacher excellence requires a deepening of professional knowledge through learning about pedagogy and the science of learning."

The perception of teaching as a skills-based rather than academic profession is completely contrary to the established tradition of educational theory and learning, says Dennis Hayes, professor of education at the University of Derby and secretary of the Standing Committee for the Education and Training of Teachers (SCETT). He says a grounding in the philosophy, psychology and history of education is vital for new teachers.

"When I did my teacher training, the first thing I read was a book on the philosophy of education, which made very clear the distinction between training and education," says Professor Hayes. "If you've got outcomes and standards, that's training not education. If you've read the great works, your whole approach is different. I wouldn't let anybody in the classroom to teach unless they had read Plato's Republic, Rousseau's Emile, and Dewey's Democracy and Education. I don't know what the outcome of that would be, but we would have a different culture in education if teachers had read those three great texts."

However, Mr Noble-Rogers is keen to dispel any preconceptions that university courses involve esoteric study that has very little relevance to the classroom. About two-thirds of a PGCE course takes place in school, and the partnership between universities and schools is a crucial part of most courses.

"Schools are involved in the selection, training and assessment of student teachers," he explains. "The current teacher training landscape is not as clear-cut as it might appear at first sight. Schools are closely involved in university-led provision, and universities are involved in school-led provision."

But according to Professor Hayes, existing teacher training is already too far removed from education as a subject, and Mr Gove's revolution is also heading too far in the opposite direction. "You can't have teachers who don't know what they're doing," he says. "They might have a few skills and know how to organise a classroom, but if they don't know anything about education they're going to make hopeless teachers."

Focusing on the mechanics of day-to-day teaching can cause trainees to lose sight of the bigger picture, he says. As well as learning how to manage a classroom, teachers should also learn how legislation affects schools. "The fact that people don't even know about the Education Act is appalling. You have to know that if you are going to be a successful teacher and educator of young people, rather than just a trainer."

However, a criticism still levelled at PGCEs - and at academic study in general - is that the subject matter may be interesting but not always useful. Different theories of education can help teachers understand how children learn but are not very helpful when they face a bottom-set Year 9 on a Friday afternoon.

Sheila King, director of secondary PGCE at the IoE, believes this argument is misplaced. "There might be a gap between theory and practice, but we don't want to come down to the lowest common denominator - it's about raising the game," she says. "You can't do that with a few SCITT and GTP schools, and the PGCE is a cheap and effective way of doing that."

The other benefit of university-led training is the ability to respond quickly to new theories and research, she says. Mrs King is adamant that keeping teachers informed is essential to raising standards. "Students bring new blood and new ideas into the classroom," she says. "If class teachers see those new ideas, it has a ripple effect throughout schools."

PGCE students also have access to experts who are leaders in their fields. "With schools, you aren't guaranteed that excellent teachers will be teaching new teachers," she adds.

James Blackwell, headteacher of Richmond Hill Primary in Aspatria, Cumbria believes implementing the ITT system is already a massive undertaking for schools and teachers. Trainees are assigned to a mentor during their school placements and Mr Blackwell argues that asking these mentors to take on more responsibility would be untenable, particularly in small schools.

"To do the job as a mentor properly is hard," he says. "You have to dedicate a chunk of your week to do that and you don't get paid any extra." Such a change in training would also require more in terms of resources. He says the funding his school gets for taking on NQTs is almost entirely spent on sending them on to other schools and training workshops to gain wider experience.

This is a similar problem facing one teacher training course that Mr Gove does approve of: Teach First. The charitable scheme, aimed at high-flying graduates, involves an intensive six-week course and two years' on-the-job training at a disadvantaged school. While budgets elsewhere are being squeezed, Teach First has been given enough government funding to double its intake. However, because of its high entry requirements, it is unlikely that Teach First will ever attract a very large proportion of graduates.

Jo Badman, who is in the second year of her Teach First placement at Djanogly City Academy, Nottingham, agrees with Mr Gove that the best teacher training is done on the job. "I had my six weeks' training and that was very thorough and did really help," she says. "But there is nothing that can fully prepare you for standing on your own two feet in front of a big group of children and having to manage their behaviour and teach them."

She remembers her first few months at Djanogly City Academy as daunting. "It is learning from scratch," Ms Badman says. "I just remember working all day, coming home and planning. Then going to sleep and doing it all over again."

Many schools are often glad of Teach First trainees, who are placed in challenging schools that would usually struggle to recruit and retain teachers. But a lot is expected from staff in return and this would only increase if universities were not overseeing trainees.

Ms Badman acknowledges that it was difficult to find time with her mentor to reflect on practice and assess her progress. During her first year, their meetings often had to be interrupted or cancelled. "Our school is on a split site and going from one side to the other could take about 20 minutes," she says. "It is difficult to fit in the time. When you get to training days or mentor meetings, you are really rushed."

And yet this could be the future. For schools it will mean stretching resources even further as busy teachers take time out to mentor trainees. The danger is that standards will slip, not only as teachers have less time to teach and pupils are taught by trainees who have no grounding in theory, but as the steady flow of ideas coming from universities dries up.

For trainee teachers, it will mean more responsibility from the outset and no time to take a step back and consider the philosophies and theories behind their profession.

There is some agreement in the education community that a shake-up in ITT is needed. In their annual Good Teacher Training Guide, Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson, from the Centre for Education and Employment Research (CEER) at the University of Buckingham, found that only 71 per cent of teacher trainees in 200809 were doing any kind of teaching six months later.

The implications are that either too many teachers are being trained or many of those being trained are not committed to teaching.

"We know there is room for improvement," says Mr Roach, "but the theoretical contribution that is made by higher education-based ITT is absolutely invaluable. We lose that at our peril."

Whether Mr Gove will be able to put his ideas into practice is a moot point, given the expected resistance from schools and the likely cost of devolving training to them. But there can be little doubt that taking teacher training away from universities would represent as wide-reaching an upheaval in education as any shift to free schools from local authority influence.

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