School Direct raises competitive tensions

Academics taken aback by consequences of coalition policy

November 14, 2013

The extent to which the government’s flagship teacher training policy has made schools compete for student places has surprised the academy, a conference has heard.

Sean Cavan, head of professional development at Sheffield Hallam University, made the comments during a presentation on School Direct and initial teacher training at the Universities’ Council for the Education of Teachers’ annual conference, held in Burton-on-Trent last week.

Mr Cavan, who spoke about the challenges posed by and responses to the policy, told Times Higher Education that despite universities collaborating to make School Direct work, there was potential for a “competitive culture” to develop between higher education institutions, too.

Under School Direct, schools are able to select and recruit trainees directly. For the 2014-15 academic year, the Department for Education has increased the number of School Direct allocations while decreasing core university teacher training numbers by more than 3,800.

Mr Cavan told THE that schools and higher education institutions had been unsure about how the system would operate in practice, an insecurity that may have led to increased competition.

“Part of the concerns [schools] had was trying to ensure they were able to access candidates coming into a wholly new system. Nobody knew how it was going to work,” he said.

However, he added that some universities were still working hard with schools to continue to promote an atmosphere of collaboration.

“Sheffield Hallam put a lot of time and effort into having very open discussions among all the lead schools that we worked with to ameliorate that sense of competition,” he said.

Richard Dunnill, director of education at the University of Birmingham, who also spoke at the conference, told delegates that the initial teacher education world was “unsure of what it is doing”.

He added that universities “need to bombard” the National College for Teaching and Leadership to ensure that School Direct benefits them. He said that Birmingham was “paddling hard” to move forward in the teacher training sector and “increasingly school-led” system.

However, Professor Dunnill added that universities needed to consider carefully the financial implications of the School Direct policy. In the short term, he said, institutions had to absorb the back office costs of initial teacher education programmes because schools could not be expected to do so.

However, the academy would not be able to cope in the long term either, he added.

Professor Dunnill said that Birmingham’s University School would help because it would maintain “academic integrity” by providing innovative teacher training while also generating education research into how teachers should be developed.

The school has aims to “embed teacher training and be a centre for pedagogical innovation and world-class research in teaching and school improvement”, according to its website.

But Professor Dunnill warned that even the University School would need to maintain trainee numbers.

“We need enough to make it worthwhile staying in the business,” he said. “We will carry on paddling into the long term, but it is a risky business.”

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