Michael Gove is a man in a hurry. Such has been the pace and breadth of his reforms to the schools system that those affected have often barely had time to take stock before he has moved on. Such an approach has not been without political bumps, but the education secretary is admired within his party as someone who gets things done.
Of course, so vigorous a shake-up of schools and the curriculum also affects higher education, and one area in which Gove’s reforming zeal has strayed across the divide is in teacher training, which is of huge importance (not least financially) to the universities involved.
The government wants the emphasis in teacher training to move away from universities and into schools via schemes such as School Direct.
The implication for education departments, and for the universities in which they sit, are assessed in our feature this week.
‘Are we saying that this doesn’t require university engagement?’ one v-c asks. ‘What will happen to the child and the quality of his or her education?’
John Furlong, professor of educational studies at the University of Oxford, argues that education as a discipline is in crisis: “From every quarter, it seems that the contribution of our universities to the field of education is being questioned and diluted.”
This reflects a wider feeling among universities that they are under siege in this area.
Take Ofsted’s inspection of teacher training, in which university provision has long won better ratings than that based in schools (under the 2008-12 Ofsted inspection framework, 46 per cent of all higher education provision was judged to be “outstanding”).
The framework has now changed, and while it is still early days, large providers fear that they will be less likely to secure an “outstanding” rating under the new regime. This matters because Ofsted judgements relate directly to the allocations institutions will receive.
None of this means that universities have suddenly got worse at training teachers, but such changes are adding to the fraught atmosphere within education departments. One gets a sense of the climate from the story (perhaps apocryphal) about the head of one department that was inspected and found no longer to be “outstanding”. She objected to the inspectors on the grounds that her department was at least as good as the one at the university up the road, which still had “outstanding” status.
“Don’t worry,” came the reply, “it soon won’t.”
One vice-chancellor observes that it may be in Gove’s interest for there to be fewer “outstanding” university providers of initial teacher training because this will both release places to and push providers towards School Direct - the employment-based alternative preferred by the Department for Education.
“Any higher education institution judged to be ‘good’ is scheduled to lose 50 per cent of its allocation by 2014-15; any judged to be ‘adequate’ could lose their entire provision,” says the vice-chancellor (adding that they would rather not be identified lest their university be rewarded with a kicking).
The implications are potentially profound: “Are we saying that the training of teachers doesn’t require university engagement or, at best, universities playing [only] a minor role?” the vice-chancellor asks. “And crucially, what will happen to the child and the quality of his or her education? We simply do not know, but we do know that they only go through the educative process in school once.”