Education White Paper: time to make the case for the PGCE

If qualified teacher status is abolished, the role of a postgraduate certificate becomes even more important, says Jacquie Nunn

March 22, 2016
Teacher and pupils in class

The Department for Education’s White Paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, states that by 2020 the “school-led system” will be “in control” of initial teacher training. This is a proposal reminiscent of the assertion in the mid-1990s by Anthea Millett, then chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency, that only 10 per cent of new teachers would be trained in universities by the turn of the century. Twenty years on, and in spite of the introduction of the Graduate Teacher Programme and the more recent rapid roll-out of School Direct, it remains the case that the higher education sector is deeply engaged in the initial education of a significant majority of new teachers.

Last year, the report of the Carter review of initial teacher education recommended that applicants “should understand that qualified teacher status is the essential component of ITT and that a postgraduate certificate in education is an optional academic qualification”. That challenged the university sector to articulate for schools, potential teachers and indeed for policymakers an agreed view of the value of the PGCE. The White Paper’s proposal for the abolition of QTS, and its replacement by an accreditation to be ratified by schools at the end of the first year in teaching, reinforces the urgency of the debate.

What is not in doubt is that the future success of our society requires that education should be seen as a prestigious profession, attracting high-calibre candidates with intellectual curiosity as well as the personal and practical skills to be excellent classroom practitioners. Other programmes of professional training, including those leading to careers in the health, legal and social services involve intensive periods of practical experience, linked to relevant academic study. Teaching should be no different. Initial training should develop an understanding of the curriculum and pedagogy and of the psychological and socio-economic factors affecting children’s learning. These themes cannot be treated in the abstract, but must be linked to extensive practical teaching in schools.

The role of theory in ITE is contentious; the critique being that it is divorced from the realities of the classroom. But the best PGCE programmes draw on a range of evidence and on theoretical perspectives that help new teachers develop understanding beyond the immediate context of their training school. They support new entrants to the profession in developing critical thinking on key themes and enable them to respond to the complex challenges facing the schools where they encounter their first classroom experiences, through drawing on wider evidence. It is crucial too that new teachers should acquire the confidence to use basic research methods, not only to evaluate their own work but to give them the insights that will enable them to become discerning users of the theory and evidence that informs their practice.

The concept of “control” is equally problematic. All the evidence shows that outstanding ITE is built on strong equal partnerships. New teachers benefit from contact with tutors who have deep knowledge of learning and teaching in their subject, age phase or a specialist aspect of provision, such as special educational needs. University teacher educators typically have extensive prior experience in schools, as well as a thorough understanding of the range of practice in schools across the partnership. Many have national and international research profiles in their specialist areas, or are involved in the leadership of subject associations. This expertise is combined with that of teachers, selected from those with excellent practice in their specialist subject, a proper understanding of the role of the school-based teacher educator, and time to carry out the role. These complementary inputs enrich the programme of ITE, offering new teachers breadth and depth in their learning, as well as providing opportunities for school-based staff to keep in touch with developments in their subjects and phases and for university tutors to keep up to date with current practice in schools.

In line with excellent international systems, and current practice in other parts of the UK, the teaching profession in England should be qualified at the end of the ITE phase with an academic award. If QTS is abolished, the award of the PGCE in postgraduate ITE becomes even more important. There are evident risks to quality and consistency in passing the responsibility for the accreditation of teachers to schools, without any systematic approach to moderating the judgements being made.

The PGCE, through its UK-wide procedures for programme validation, peer review and scrutiny through the system of external moderation and examination, offers a strong basis for high-quality ITE, as well as for continuing professional development that will inspire and retain the next generation of teachers.  

Jacquie Nunn is policy and liaison officer at the Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers.

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