England’s ITT reforms pose needless risk at the worst possible time

If it all goes wrong, universities will not be able to avert truly disastrous consequences, says Rama Thirunamachandran 

September 19, 2021
A person jumps across a gap illustrating changes to initial teacher training (ITT) in the UK
Source: iStock

Last month, the UK government responded to its consultation on introducing a new international qualification for teaching, known as international qualified teacher status, or iQTS.

This qualification is designed for delivery by providers across England, based on what the secretary of state rightly called the “quality and rigour of our teacher training”. However, those warm words come at the same time as the government proposes to seriously disrupt the existing system with an overhaul so radical that it has prompted some providers to suggest they will abandon teacher training entirely.

Those people and institutions responsible for the quality and rigour so lauded by the secretary of state could be forgiven their confusion. If initial teacher training (ITT) in England is so good, why the need for such upheaval? Why the need for a new accreditation system, stricter controls on universities’ freedom to shape course content and a rearrangement of established relationships between universities and schools?

Change is not a problem. Indeed, at modern universities change is part of what we do: we work hard to respond to business and industry needs and we innovate constantly to ensure our provision maintains its cutting edge. It is modern universities that have worked closely on initiatives such as degree apprenticeships and the development of better pathways on to technical and vocational courses. However, before we take any course of action, the issues at hand must be analysed and the risks evaluated.

All of us want only the best for new teachers and the schools they will work in. However, despite good intentions, I feel the review falls short, both in terms of diagnosing the issue it seeks to address and in prescribing an effective solution. This is not an issue of ideology or even principally of institutional autonomy, although that is a worry for many. My great fear is that these proposals will make things more difficult for trainees and schools and pose a potential risk to the crucial pipeline into the profession in the years ahead.

Universities are used to rigorous quality assurance and to accreditation procedures. But the question remains: how would all this bureaucratic change help trainees and improve quality? We don’t know yet who would be accrediting, and I have serious doubts about the ability of any organisation to take up the responsibility in the near future, even if it were desirable. We don’t know how long accreditation will last, how it will be judged, and what happens to a university’s students should accreditation be put into question. It is also unclear how this relates to the work of schools regulator Ofsted, which already monitors and, to an extent, accredits training programmes.

These unknowns matter. After the past 18 months, and within the context of ongoing wider higher education reform, instability is something that vice-chancellors need to limit as much as possible. Put this uncertainty together with the new system’s higher delivery costs and the decline in applications for ITT this year and we have the makings of a perfect storm that could see many providers cut their losses.

Cost increases are not limited to providers; schools will also be expected to provide more resources, more time away for mentors and more training. Universities provide funds to schools as much as they can, and the partnerships that have been created have flourished in recent years, proving their worth at the height of the pandemic, in particular, when teaching – and therefore teacher training – had to move online.

However, the extra pressures created by the proposed changes risk pushing already overstretched schools to breaking point. They simply won’t be able to deliver what is now to be asked of them, particularly if universities have to pull out or scale back. It must be frankly acknowledged that quality will not be improved in this way.

We should all want the highest quality for every single trainee, but our universities already work to fulfil that ambition every day, following the latest evidence and best practice. By contrast, the serious evidence warranted by the scale of the proposed changes simply has not been presented by the review.

Universities are the bedrock of ITT in England, and we hope to continue to be so going forward, but this sort of experimental thinking is only possible due to the permanence of universities and their ability to pick up the slack if things go wrong. The reason these proposals have elicited such a backlash is that they seriously strain that ability. If this goes wrong, universities will not be able to avert truly disastrous consequences.

MillionPlus, the umbrella body for modern universities, which I chair, has called for the reforms to be paused and, where issues of quality arise, for the sector and government to work together to assess solutions. Our hope is that we can take the points that the review has raised, alongside all the new policy initiatives that have been introduced in recent years, and work closely with schools to maximise quality without overburdening them with demands and bureaucracy.

We need more schools involved going forward, but that process takes time and must be fostered on the basis of partnership, trust and as much stability as possible. The government’s proposals risk creating precisely the opposite conditions.

Rama Thirunamachandran is vice-chancellor and principal of Canterbury Christ Church University and chair of MillionPlus.

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