Campus close-up: Sheffield Hallam University

Provision of initial teacher training faces a huge upheaval but there is also scope for new networks and partnerships

December 4, 2014

Source: Alamy

Holding up: Sheffield Hallam’s initial teacher training places are staying steady

It might appear a little odd for a university to be committing to a £15 million extension to its education institute at a time when other universities are “questioning whether they even stay in this game at all”, admits Samantha Twiselton, founding director of Sheffield Hallam University’s Sheffield Institute of Education.

But, for all the havoc created by the government’s policy of moving large amounts of initial teacher education out of universities and into schools, Professor Twiselton is very confident that the institute’s new building (complete with an outdoor classroom on its roof) will cement Sheffield Hallam’s ability to thrive in the new policy environment.

The building (due to open next September) had a hesitant genesis. Vice-chancellor Philip Jones admits he was somewhat relieved when, in 2009, Sheffield City Council refused planning permission for the original design, since that gave him an opportunity to reflect on whether such a large investment was wise in the wake of the economic crash.

“We were anticipating a significant cut in public expenditure. But we drew breath and thought: ‘Actually, we still have a sizeable business here and [the building project] is a statement of our confidence in our ability to adapt to changing market and political conditions.’”

Those political conditions did indeed change dramatically when Michael Gove swept into the department for education, declared war on “the blob” of perceived vested educational interests and unveiled his new “School Direct” scheme for training new teachers.

According to Professor Twiselton, Mr Gove’s rhetoric was unnecessarily polarising, but the university essentially agreed with the thrust of his policy. “This government recognised that schools need more ownership at every level, including initial teacher education. We have long recognised that, too. We recognise that practitioners have something to offer that we don’t,” she says.

Twiselton was University of Cumbria dean of education before moving to Sheffield Hallam in 2013 to head its newly formed institute of education. She sees the reforms as a “great opportunity” for Sheffield Hallam to exploit its network of partnerships with schools, lending its expertise in scholarship and research in support of schools’ delivery of teacher training and of their ongoing professional development.

The institute’s new building will be connected to the existing centre via an “air bridge”. It will pool the expertise of about 150 academics currently distributed around various locations on the university’s large city campus, including two separate research centres (the Centre for Science Education and the Centre for Education and Inclusion Research).

Professor Twiselton hopes this co-location of experts in diverse areas such as autism, early years, English as a second language and science and maths teaching will facilitate “corridor conversations” that lead to the production of “new and exciting ideas” – an “oiling of the wheels”, as she puts it.

Like Professor Jones, she is frustrated that universities are only told annually how many initial teacher education places they will receive, making planning difficult. But, so far, she is reassured that Sheffield Hallam’s allocation is “holding up” following Mr Gove’s reforms. Meanwhile, the necessity to work out universities’ role in the School Direct programme has led to “deeper conversations” and “deeper partnerships” with schools. One fruit of this, Professor Twiselton says, is a version of a postgraduate qualification for teachers of children with special needs. Another is a programme to educate 40 primary school PE specialists. Both were commissioned directly by the National College for Teaching and Leadership to address shortage areas.

She also sees a potential role for the institute in evaluating the efficacy of school-led delivery.

As Sheffield Hallam is among the five largest universities in the UK, measured by student numbers, Professor Jones is reassured by its ability to compensate for “declines” in some areas of activity by expansion in others. He is hopeful the chances of a decline in education are further reduced by Professor Twiselton’s presence on the government-commissioned panel, chaired by Sir Andrew Carter, charged with reviewing the quality and effectiveness of initial teacher education courses.

“If core allocations [of initial teacher education places] reduce dramatically even more, we will have to keep reviewing and seeing how we respond, but a critical bit of that is being involved in shaping the framework,” he says.

“I am confident we can define a good role for universities like us, for whom partnership work is natural.”

In numbers

150 educational academics currently spread across several Sheffield Hallam campus locations

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