Trainers rally as Gove plots a new course for his 'craft'

27th May 2011 at 01:00
Uncertainty hangs over the wholesale review of teacher training, with many fearing that higher course fees will deter newcomers - and that a drift away from universities could end up eroding the profession's status. Kerra Maddern reports

Teacher training is not, traditionally, a sexy subject for either newspaper editors or politicians. It is possible that it even comes after vocational qualifications in the list of education policy turn-offs.

Not since some Tory wag in the dim and distant past referred to teacher training colleges as "left-wing madrassas" has the #163;800 million-a-year enterprise seemed particularly interesting to most lay-folk.

As such it came as a surprise when, very soon after he assumed the Big Seat in the Department, it was confirmed that the Coalition's new education secretary held some rather strong views on the subject.

In addition to launching an enormous programme of academy expansion, finding cash down the back of the sofa to fund a smattering of free schools and launching a major national curriculum review, Michael Gove opined to almost anyone who would listen on the faults of teacher training.

Teaching was, he explained, "a craft". A craft that was best learnt at the chalkface, not in a university lecture theatre. As such, he set about beefing up Teach First, launched Troops to Teachers and drew up plans for a network of training schools, which would become hubs for overseeing initial teacher training and continuing professional development in their areas.

But all the while perhaps the most important element of this jigsaw was being developed behind the scenes by Gove-commissioned civil servants - a wholesale review of teacher training.

The all-important results of this official review were due to be signed off by Mr Gove in the new year, but are now not expected to be made public until next month. Reasons for the delay are unknown, and proposals are being kept a closely guarded secret.

But it has been widely predicted that it will deal with where the money for teacher training should be directed - to individuals, schools or the universities themselves - and the future of undergraduate courses. It is also likely to consider the course fees that colleges should charge - should they be priced at what is fast becoming the "standard" #163;9,000?

David Reynolds, professor of educational effectiveness at Southampton University, is certain that nothing short of a revolution is coming along the tracks. "It's clear the intention is to push classroom-based training, whereas at the moment around 75 per cent of entrants to the profession come from universities. Perhaps they will want to reduce numbers over time to something more like 50 per cent," he says. "The Government seems to distrust our (universities') influence."

Professor Reynolds predicts that more use will be made of direct routes such as Teach First. "This would allow the Government to control training directly. The Conservative party has always felt teacher training was not under their control in the way they wanted it."

He confirms that universities feel very threatened and extremely concerned about the long-term outlook. "These are uncertain times," says Professor Reynolds. "The best way for them to react would be to improve the quality of their courses, and come up with new models."

Andy Jones, dean of the Institute of Education at Manchester Metropolitan University, agrees that it is the lack of clarity that is damaging. "At the moment we are just being left dangling; we can't plan for the future even though the rest of the university sector now has clarity," he says. "Will trainees have to pay fees of #163;8,000 to #163;9,000? We don't know. But we do know that if you ask physics graduates, for example, to pay that much it won't help the recruitment of those needed to teach shortage subjects."

Mr Jones urges the Government to look "very carefully" at this issue. "Teaching is one of the most important professions - trainees have to be supported properly or there will be a crisis in teacher supply.

"Academics have huge amounts of experience and skills. Working with universities also gives the profession credibility and status. We also feel universities must continue to have a central place in teacher training and development."

There are many others who echo this growing sense of crisis. James Noble Rogers, executive director of the Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers, says worrying contradictions are emanating from different departments in the Coalition.

He says: "At this point we have no idea what the proposals are going to be. (Universities minister) David Willetts has said 'universities play a vital role in much of the best teacher training and should continue to do so' and that any new funding arrangements will result in closer partnerships between schools and high-quality teacher training in universities."

Mr Noble Rogers says he is, on one level, heartened by these comments. "But if fees for teacher training courses at universities rise, this could cause serious supply problems for the profession. Especially if fees rise to #163;9,000, this could particularly affect PGCE courses. People will need to think teacher training is worth doing," he adds.

However, according to some observers there is a much wider debate to be had on teacher training that the Government is failing to engage with.

Another reform is the proposal to introduce so-called teaching schools - outstanding institutions responsible for providing and assuring initial teacher training in their areas - which would be a wholesale step away from educational training as it is currently understood. Out would go an academic understanding of pedagogy and a history of classroom traditions, they say. It would, they warn, be a major erosion of teachers as professionals.

Professor Dennis Hayes, head of the Research Centre for Education and Career Development at Derby University and honorary secretary of the Standing Committee for the Education and Training of Teachers, says the very nature of teacher training is ripe for debate.

"If the Government does want to make changes they should have had a serious discussion with the sector about what teacher education means," he says. "(Ministers) don't seem to be in favour of teacher education, they don't believe in it, which I think shows they are philistines. Ministers don't seem to understand teacher training should be about children and the way they learn, rather than about subjects."

Karen Hopwood, NASUWT national executive member for Greater Manchester and early-years teacher, is also angry. She says: "Michael Gove suggests you can learn the skills of teaching while working. We fear this means the higher education backing of our highly professional workforce will be lost. This undermines teaching.

"What's clear is that, whereas before teaching was on the way to being a masters-level profession, we are now going backwards because Michael Gove thinks it's just a 'craft' which you can learn on the job. It's not. Teaching is an art and a science which can take as much as five years to learn. It is equitable with being a doctor."

Others are slightly less animated by the whole subject. Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and until recently a secondary head in Wales, believes it is something of a distraction.

"I see very little problem with training as it stands; all routes are high quality. The key issue for the Government should be to make sure the best-qualified people want to enter and stay in the profession," he says.

It is interesting that this is another of Mr Gove's bugbears - that teaching should be increasingly staffed with better-qualified entrants with high-level qualifications before they even sign up for a life in the classroom.

It is also a more attractive proposition when it comes to attention-grabbing policy - think of the headlines the Government generated when it said it wanted all teachers to have a 2:1. Perhaps it is in this area, then, that Mr Gove should concentrate his reforming zeal.

COMMENTARY

CUTS TO NUMBERS IS HEART OF DEBATE

There has been a revolution in teacher training in the past few years - the introduction of national literacy and numeracy strategies have put pressure on teacher trainers to up their game.

There is still real variability in teacher training, though; the Government should be concentrating on helping institutions move up to the standards of the best.

The development of teaching schools has already happened. University education departments have already developed strong relationships with local schools; the best have integral links. So in a way the idea of a teaching school is a bit past it.

Many students at on-the-job training schools have low self-esteem - being at a university gives trainees perspective. The Government seems to want training to be centred in schools, with universities providing support services that the schools buy in. This is the wrong relationship. Instead there needs to be a genuine partnership between the two, not one that involves a market and depends on the level of school budgets.

The major debate we actually should be having is about whether there are enough jobs and training places. To cut back on the number of trainee teachers would be a major mistake.

John Bangs is a senior research associate at Cambridge University and a former head of education at the NUT.

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