Is it time for UK universities to exit teacher training?

The UK government's increasingly proscriptive policies on teacher education could start encroaching on universities’ autonomy, say Viv Ellis and Keith Turvey 

三月 6, 2020

While education secretary Gavin Williamson is giving universities a “final warning on free speech”, the Department for Education and Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, are making an unprecedented attack on the autonomy of universities.

Initial teacher education (ITE) continues to be an important part of the work of most English universities’ education departments despite an oversight creep that began when Ofsted first acquired the right to inspect ITE programmes in the mid-1990s. The results of inspections are linked to funding through the allocation of student numbers; a failed inspection can lead to a judgement of “non-compliance” and course closure.

New Labour initially sought tight control and imposed a very detailed ITE national curriculum in 1998, also forming the basis of inspection by Ofsted. After 2010, inspections became a two-stage process. The first stage was conducted when teachers were still students; the second involved inspectors visiting newly qualified teachers in their first posts. Hence, universities were held to account for the performance of their former students, months after courses had ended.

The system was also highly authoritarian in implementation, obliging heads of department to sit near a telephone every Thursday morning, for months on end, in case Ofsted called to announce that an inspection was to begin the following Monday. The point was to keep the sector permanently vigilant.

Tight control of ITE was ratcheted up again just prior to December’s general election, when a mandatory “content framework” was published hours before purdah descended. That this document was published in a hurry is indicated in at least two ways: first, the file’s meta-data and its list of references showed that it had been largely copied from an earlier document, the Early Career Framework, designed to support new teachers post-qualification. Second, many of the researchers who had given evidence to the DfE-nominated group tasked with putting the new ITE framework together were dismayed to find that their contributions were not reflected at all in what was published.

Then, on 27 January, Ofsted published a draft ITE inspection framework for consultation. The proposed inspection methodology is startling not only because it seeks to enforce high levels of compliance with the content framework – ensuring that gross oversimplifications of theories of learning are taught to trainee teachers, for example – but also because, for the first time in Ofsted’s history, inspectors are actively seeking to prohibit certain research from being taught at all.

The proscriptions concern the teaching of early reading: universities may only teach a method called systematic synthetic phonics (SSP), which advocates teaching young children all the separate phonemes in English and how they can be synthesised into words. The draft inspection framework states that an “inadequate” grade will be given to any departments teaching “competing” theories.

This marks a new nadir in the role of the state in English ITE. Students will be taught impoverished versions of psychological theories of learning that would not be tolerated in the psychology department – or, indeed, in any other part of the education department. Even more starkly, they will not be allowed to be taught any “competing approach” to SSP (such as for young children who are deaf or hearing impaired). Nor will lecturers be permitted to contextualise SSP in the history of ideas about literacy learning; or subject the theory to scientific critique.

To appreciate fully the regressive stranglehold that such proscription places on professional education, imagine a university being required to teach medical students about a course of treatment that they know is not in itself sufficient, or effective for all patients, and yet being prohibited from teaching them about other viable treatments for fear of being closed down.

Some in the sector are now openly questioning whether it is time for universities to withdraw from ITE. Are vice-chancellors really prepared to allow their premises and staff to be used by the state both to mandate inferior “content” and to participate in what is effectively an exercise in book-burning? Or might it be better not to be at home when the inspector calls?

Viv Ellis is professor of educational leadership and teacher development at King’s College London. Keith Turvey is principal lecturer in education at the University of Brighton.



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Reader's comments (5)

I agree that the imposition is intolerable but if universities pull out the training will be done more or less directly by the state which will be even worse. Can’t universities resist and negotiate?
For too long university administrators and faculty have been using the word 'teaching ' far too loosely. They are wrongly assuming that lecturers in their institutions are all teachers. In addition universities always proclaim that they are engaged in research, teaching and service. The only faculty at university level who can and should be engaged in teacher training are those in the education faculty/school particularly those who taught at the primary and/or secondary and/or early childhood levels before moving on to the University level. It must be noted and communicated to all universities that a lecturer is not a teacher because teaching is simply not about sharing, questioning or debunking information. Teaching is about teaching students despite individual differences in readiness and multiple intelligences. This requires an awareness of their previous knowledge, how much content will be shared, making use of different methods (drama, role play, experiential, projects, performances, games etc), different forms of assessments (not only examinations), providing individual level feedback, and following up to ensure that learning with understanding is happening. This I the approach irrespective of age group. To properly do this however, all lecturers across all faculties needs To be exposed to the psychology, sociology and philosophy of education. All of this simply means that not everybody can teach and similarly not everybody is a medical doctor. Teaching is profession and it's Practitioners have to be specially trained.
I urge you to get a grip of the difference between educating and training. Being exposed to the psychology, sociology and philosophy of education does not, and can not, transform a student of these disciplines in to that professional which you claim exists. There are too many 'professionals' who pretend to possess those skills which are required for teaching, simply because they have emerged from some prescribed academic programme: the end product of which is a qualification which gives the holder a licence to go and practise teaching. An individual who holds any license to practise anything will know whether they can deliver as a professional or not. A continued problem is that those who know they can't deliver to students hang around and ruin lives. The current system is flawed on two fronts. The initial flaw is in believing that teachers can be made in a classroom on a prescribed course. The following flaw is the protection of professional failure where it is known to exist. Both would be eradicated if we simply closed down Departments of Education, and their courses, and handed the responsibility of the training and the screening of aspiring teachers to those who are likely to employ them.
Surely, what we want in the people who are educating our next generation of teachers, is people who have had proven success in teaching and have had academic success in the research and study of education theory. I would argue just one is not enough. Certainly, my experience of a very successful ITE department in a university is that the lecturers were all very successful teachers prior to moving in to higher education. The lecturers were former head teachers and advanced skills teachers who were highly experienced and very qualified. Equally, there are schools out there training teachers that have staff that continue to research and study to a higher level as well as being excellent teachers. I think we should be concerned with ensuring quality, rather than making idealogical statements about where we think this education should happen.
We are fortunate in England in that the vast majority of university ITE teaching staff have been themselves successful, experienced and well qualified teachers. Why this gov, along with previous ones, wants to dissociate ITE from universities in this way is bizarre. Universities can do quite well without ITE, the question is, does the teaching profession want to break with higher education and become ITT, mere instructors, where they just deliver, without question, the present government's mandated script?