Failure to innovate leaves sector playing teacher training catch-up

Universities were too slow to take lead, leaving them vulnerable to policy change, scholar argues

March 19, 2015

Universities have been criticised for failing to innovate in teacher education when they had the chance, leaving them vulnerable to policy change that has pushed such provision into turmoil and left the sector out of pocket.

Viv Ellis, professor of education and head of the department of education at Brunel University, made the comments after the publication of his book Transforming Teacher Education: Reconfiguring the Academic Work, co-authored with Jane McNicholl, associate professor of science education at the University of Oxford.

Professor Ellis said that “when the times were good”, universities did not develop teacher education to safeguard against policy changes.

The government’s School Direct programme – under which student teachers can be recruited straight into schools – has reduced the money awarded to universities to train teachers, leading some institutions to ditch courses such as the PGCE.

But Professor Ellis told Times Higher Education that in the past 30 years, “English universities have been pretty slow to have their own ideas about what teacher education should be”.

He said: “What we’ve ended up with in the current situation is a responsive mode from universities to what policy wants – whatever party it is. We can’t just carry on blaming policy. Universities have to come forward and say, ‘Right, there has to be a different way of doing this.’”

Professor Ellis said that while the income stream from student teachers was flowing and politicians such as the former education secretary Michael Gove kept out of teacher training, the status quo served universities well. However, the coalition’s policy shift caught the sector cold, he added, leading to education department closures, with the threat of more to come.

In the final chapter of his book, Professor Ellis writes of three “very urgent” things institutions should do. “Working with the profession” may seem an obvious and already established practice, but Professor Ellis said that universities should go beyond “individual schools” and work with “professional teaching in the way that medical and nursing departments work with professional nursing and medicine”.

“It’s about real engagement with the profession,” he said, “although we do think [universities] have to take the lead. That’s going to be good for the profession and good for education departments.”

This engagement would help counter the “misalignment” of certain training routes, where trainees are taught one thing by universities and another by schools.

“Some people call it ‘practice shock’,” he said. “They do their PGCE sessions in the university, they get taught research-based things about how to teach writing in a primary school and then they go to a primary school and are told, ‘That’s not how you do it at all!’”

He added that “mediating relationships between student teachers and the schools in which they are placed for long periods of time” was essential.

Finally, universities can “educate teachers in schools in partnership; at the same time you are building the research-led cultures…playing to the strengths of the university, benefiting the schools and the profession”, Professor Ellis said. “That’s where we end up in the book.”

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