When Michael Gove was appointed secretary of state for education in 2010, schools hoped it would spell an end to the hysterical “innovation” that had characterised the sector, and universities hoped he would secure for them a flow of students with differentiated school-leaving qualifications. Although many saw him as a nerdish apparatchik, he rightly tried to tackle issues such as the acceptance of low attainment in minority communities and the dysfunctional oligopoly of the examination system. However, on the debit side, the impetus of his various initiatives was lost in a morass of conflicting ideological crusades and his signature misadventure, the sabotage of university-based teacher training – the subject of the recent review led by Sir Andrew Carter – was, ironically, outside his remit.
It may speak volumes for the underestimated political nous of former universities and science minister David Willetts that he passed the thorny issue of initial teacher training to education secretary Gove, who was turned by it into a prisoner of the unreconstructed prejudices that he had so eloquently rejected as a “progressive Conservative”. The motivation for Gove’s reforms lay in the fact that the Conservative Party regards academics as left-wing anarchists who cannot be trusted with the business of educating students. This paranoia is self-evidently false, but it is a view currently being extended to other professions, such as barristers and medics, as the political class becomes more disconnected and parliamentarians commonly enter government with little more than a PPE degree from Oxford. And it has turned initial teacher training in the UK into an international joke at the very time the government is trying to raise the status of teaching in the eyes of parents and children, amid a recognition that effective education is the route to greater social mobility.
Although the Carter Review does not address this issue directly, any serious examination of the professions reveals the importance of training in proximity to those making advances in the underpinning science. Certainly, teachers should be trained in schools, just as doctors are trained in hospitals. But like medicine, teaching is an art practised by scientists, and just as we would not tolerate proto-medics doing their clinical training in hospitals that had no contact with medical research, we should not tolerate anything similar when it comes to training teachers. Simply defining teacher training as a commodity is not enough to ensure the acquisition of its desirable properties. Teacher training should be practical and carried out via partnerships, as the Carter Review states, but it should also be theoretical and reflect advances in the science of pedagogy and in the disciplines that underpin learning. Otherwise we reduce teaching to the status of quackery and anecdotal superstition.
However, in many ways, the demise of university-based teacher training is universities’ own fault, not least for their spineless acquiescence to government policy. An angry few wrote letters to the newspapers, but the kind of quiet lobbying that works so well for commercial interests was not done. Following the publication of the 2012 results for the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), countries such as Finland (ranked 12th) were praised as paragons of educational effectiveness, but universities did not flag up the higher status of teachers there. When the Republic of Ireland (20th) outperformed the UK (26th), the wider academic community did not point out that initial teacher training there was led by universities and had recently been increased from one year to two. When China’s economic growth was bizarrely attributed to Shanghai’s high attainment in mathematics (1st), university leaders did not point out that Chinese students seem to do equally well outside China and that, in any case, China was not the type of society to which the UK was aspiring.
In essence, the university sector cherry-picked the data that suited its purposes and rolled over when financial incentives were created for schools to deliver teacher training completely outside universities, so that when schools jumped on board for the money, the “race to the bottom” that Gove was so keen to avoid when it came to pupil attainment became the reality for teacher training.
Yet even as the country was being scoured for those willing to deliver lower quality teacher training for ever-lower fees, universities were making the argument for the retention of teacher training on the basis that training needed to be close to those doing research in the sciences that underpin practice – while simultaneously defending training being done in universities that didn’t do any research! Nobody in higher education was (nor, it seems, are they even now) willing to state the case for initial teacher training being located almost exclusively in research-intensive universities, and nor does the Carter Review tackle this issue. Instead, hastily expressed Gove-bashing has distracted the sector from the opportunity to embrace reform, just as happened with the teaching unions in the late 1970s, so that universities as a whole are again perceived as defensive and self-interested: part of the problem rather than part of the solution. And the inconvenient truth is that for once, this is not Gove’s fault.