Gove's prejudices are no basis for the future of UK teacher training

James Williams argues that the education secretary's 'look-and-learn' model will create a generation of pedagogues who are faking it

December 2, 2010

Credit: Paul Bateman

I agree with the education secretary, Michael Gove. Teacher training needs to be reformed. Unfortunately, that is all we agree on.

In his education White Paper presented last week, Gove proposed shifting the focus of teacher training from universities to schools.

Following the Finnish example, the government intends to create a national network of "teaching schools" based on the model of teaching hospitals. The overall number of teachers who are only trained on the job, without ever entering a university as part of their programme, will increase. It is unclear how the standard training course will change for trainee teachers completing their postgraduate certificates in education.

But is Gove aware of what teacher training currently involves? Forty-five years ago, the University of Sussex developed the school-based model of initial teacher education that is now the norm. Students spend 120 days in school, learning on the job, combined with 60 days in university. In a recent Radio 4 interview, Gove said that in his experience, "the best way people can improve as teachers is by observing other great teachers doing their job and being observed themselves". I would love to know what this "experience" is.

His description is exactly what happens now, yet to promote something that already exists, he is prepared to sideline universities. This is not the way forward. Gove's proposal would move teacher training away from its professional heart - the mix of theory, pedagogy and practice.

Characterising teacher education as a "look-and-learn" job is demeaning. I don't see any proposals for pilots to be trained by sitting in a cockpit and watching other pilots, never engaging with any of the theories behind aerodynamics.

Marginalising teacher education in universities will result in the loss of education departments, which will become financially unsustainable. A huge support mechanism for teacher education will be destroyed and longstanding partnerships that currently deliver high-quality new teachers, as recognised by Ofsted, will be dismantled. High-quality education research that feeds into teaching practice will be lost as well.

Since reform is necessary, perhaps we should look to other countries, as Gove suggests, and adopt their successful practices. Finland is the country of choice for the minister, and a top education performer.

To qualify as a teacher there, you need a bachelor's degree. You then embark on a two-year teacher-education programme, which is a mix of theory, pedagogy and practice, leading to a master's. By all means, let us raise the status of teaching here through a similar route, introducing a longer training programme - preferably two years - which will increase the time trainees spend in schools and university. Not only would all new teachers be better equipped for their jobs, this would also reduce the stress on students who currently have to go from zero to qualified in 36 weeks. Many later leave the profession feeling that their training did not prepare them for the high demands of the job.

The irony is that teacher education in universities was beginning to be valued by the previous government, with realistic - though by no means overly generous - levels of funding for students.

Subject-knowledge enhancement programmes that attracted high-quality graduates and career-changers into teaching (something the coalition perceives to be a priority) were established and I hope will be maintained. Across the country, education departments have created strong partnerships with local schools. Entire secondary school departments in Sussex, for example, are staffed by Sussex-trained teachers, many of whom are now on our master's course in education.

The next major reform in teacher education should not be the short-cut, no-frills, "Easyteach" model that Gove seems intent on imposing. In the Radio 4 interview, he refused to acknowledge the latest Ofsted evidence on teacher education, which said that university-led training was the most effective route to delivering good teachers. He offered no evidence to support this rejection, just a personal preference for "on-the-job training".

Teaching is not just a craft or a job: it's a profession. Teachers should be educated, not trained. A look-and-learn-only model may produce someone who looks, behaves and talks like a teacher, but underneath they won't be a real teacher. Channel 4 broadcast a series some years ago based on the look-and-learn premise, called Faking It. And that's what we may end up with - a generation of teachers who are simply faking it. In a profession such as teaching, it's not just a case of knowing what to do, but why you do it that way. That is where the theory taught by universities comes in. If Gove thinks otherwise, he has been seriously misinformed.

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