UK universities’ withdrawal from teacher training would be a disaster

A deeply flawed government consultation on ITT risks precipitating teacher shortages and undermining university research, says Ems Lord

September 5, 2021
A teacher points angrily
Source: iStock

When the UK government unveiled its Initial Teacher Training (ITT) consultation in July, it probably wasn’t expecting the strength of opposition from some of our most prestigious universities. However, this is exactly what has happened, with the University of Cambridge even making the extraordinary threat to withdraw from teaching training altogether if existing plans went ahead.

As someone with more than two decades of experience delivering teacher training and ongoing teacher professional development in mathematics – a subject already struggling to recruit and retain sufficient teachers – I’m deeply concerned by the review’s proposals. Put simply, they threaten not only the supply of well-trained classroom professionals but also the world-class educational research conducted by our leading universities.

It is particularly unfortunate because some aspects of the ITT review are to be welcomed, especially the call for improved support systems for teacher mentors and their mentees. But it is hard to examine these in detail when the consultation – which ended on 22 August, before the end of the summer holidays – seems to have been deliberately timed to prevent useful consultation with teachers or schools.

When the consultation began in early July, teachers were already battling severe staff shortages caused by the “pingdemic” of positive Covid tests, which followed months of balancing virtual and in-person learning due to Covid-induced school closures. With GCSE and A-level results season thrown into the mix, they had little or no capacity to effectively contribute to a key government review whose outcomes could have a deep impact on their profession.

Teachers needed ministers to recognise their massive contribution throughout the national crisis and allow them a proper break over the summer. Instead, they were faced with the ill-timed ITT review, which ignored Whitehall’s official guidance that consultations which extend into holiday periods should be accompanied by “appropriate mitigating action, such as prior discussion with key interested parties or extension of the consultation deadline beyond the holiday period”. No deadlines have been extended.

With the DfE investing some £423 million of taxpayers’ money in “teacher supply” in the past financial year, regular review is to be expected, even welcomed; good practice should be celebrated and areas of concern addressed.

But the DfE’s approach towards the ITT consultation is causing alarm. From speaking to senior leaders in schools, it is clear to me that the process needs rethinking, not least because it could jeopardise the supply of 30,000 newly trained teachers needed by UK schools each year.

Despite a growing number of pathways into teaching in recent years, university-based training remains popular: about 4,000 trainees choose to follow undergraduate programmes and approximately 13,000 take a postgraduate qualification.

However, the review’s expert panel recommends that universities revamp their curricula for next year’s intake to develop a more centralised approach to ITT. Universities argue that this would stifle innovation and their ability to respond effectively to local needs.

Moreover, all universities would be expected to reapply to be accredited as ITT providers despite every single university-led ITT course in the country being rated either “good” or “outstanding” at the beginning of the consultation period. Curiously, that situation has changed dramatically since early July; Tes reports that almost half of Ofsted’s inspections have identified alleged failings in university-led ITT courses.

Universities’ fears have been understandably heightened by the lack of detail surrounding key aspects of the proposed accreditation process. The consultation neglects to share the anticipated cost or quality control measures that will accompany the soon to be hastily introduced reforms, despite civil service guidelines stating that “sufficient information should be made available to stakeholders to enable them to make informed comments”.

The potential withdrawal of universities from ITT over what they regard as unacceptable imposition of the “equivalent of a national curriculum for teacher education” is particularly concerning – and not just because it could lead to a shortage of classroom teachers in the near future.

Their withdrawal would also have a knock-on effect on educational research because the pipeline of education masters and PhD students drawn from ITT courses would dry up, leaving the future of education departments extremely vulnerable. Classroom innovation and collaboration would also be severely hit, limiting the ability of schools to deliver a world-class education to their students. Schools, many of which are already at or near breaking point, would certainly be unable to expand their capacity for training future professionals in the limited time frame anticipated by the review.

Schools minister Nick Gibb claims that the current consultation timetable would allow the government to respond this autumn, with changes taking effect in the 2022-23 academic year. Knowing just how busy schools and universities are supporting their current trainee teachers, this wholly unrealistic timescale needs to be rethought to encourage meaningful engagement and debate. Any recommendations that emerge should be piloted and reviewed no earlier than 2023, with a potential wider roll-out the following year.

Any attempt to push ahead with a discredited process that has lost the support of teachers, school leaders and universities would be misguided. It is time for a rethink. Rushing through changes without meaningful engagement with key stakeholders will not achieve the flexible, world-class teacher training system that future generations deserve.

Ems Lord is director of Nrich, an award-winning mathematics outreach programme run by the University of Cambridge, and is a former primary and secondary school teacher.

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