Universities refuse to ‘slavishly follow’ teacher training plans

Film still of Ben Hur who has fallen into slavery as a metaphor for universities refuse to ‘slavishly follow’ teacher training plans

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The Westminster government has been hit with fresh warnings that forcing English universities involved in initial teacher training to “slavishly follow” prescribed curricula will result in leading providers exiting the market.

Opposition has been mounting to Department for Education proposals under consultation that would introduce a new accreditation system and impose stricter controls on universities’ freedom to shape their own course content.

In its response to the consultation, seen by Times Higher Education, the Universities’ Council for the Education of Teachers (UCET) – which represents providers – warns that it is “very likely that many expert and highly successful providers of [teacher training] will decide not to participate in this disruptive process” of reconfiguring programmes.

Warning against excessive government control of curricula and emphasising the need for teacher training to be research-led, the council says the status of teaching as a profession “depends in part on it being an intellectual endeavour”.

“Teachers should be more than just executive technicians. The continued involvement of some universities in teacher education might be at risk if they are expected to slavishly follow and accept current and potentially time-limited DfE approved orthodoxies and deliver prescribed curricula,” the council says.

“The withdrawal of such institutions would do huge damage to the prestige of the profession.”

Opposition to the reforms was being heightened by the short timescale proposed, with the government aiming to complete a planned reaccreditation process by September 2022, the council adds.

Universities are involved in the education of about 80 per cent of new teachers entering England’s schools each year. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge have already warned that they may pull out of teacher training if the reforms go ahead.

Jo-Anne Baird, director of the University of Oxford’s department of education, told THE that there was “no autonomy” in the proposals.

“I don’t see how a university, certainly like mine, can have a teacher education course that doesn’t promote critical thinking,” she said. “What we want is constant innovation in the programme itself, which would also be difficult under that model.”

Concerns have been raised that DfE-prescribed curricula would treat some orthodoxies around teaching practices as “incontestable”, in UCET’s words.

“I don’t know any university that would be able to create a model that runs counter to the principles of academic freedom – and that’s before we get to what kinds of teachers we want to produce,” Professor Baird said. “We want teachers who foster freedom of thought in the classroom, [and] it’s a chain.”

Graham Virgo, senior pro vice-chancellor for education at the University of Cambridge, agreed that the single model of training proposed would reduce universities’ ability to provide a “flexible, highly personalised, innovative curriculum, responsive to trainees’ and schools’ needs and based on the best available research”.

Professor Baird added that the sector was “willing to work with the government, but with these proposals, it’s still not clear what are the problems they are trying to solve”.

Two former teacher training inspectors noted that Ofsted, which is responsible for teacher training standards, had recently started taking a different approach to evaluating providers, with several institutions previously rated as “outstanding” suddenly downgraded to “inadequate”.

“For providers to be downgraded in such a dramatic way, there can only be two explanations: either Ofsted have got things very wrong for a very long time – or the goalposts have been moved so far that they are now, suddenly, on a completely different playing field,” write Terry Russell and Julie Price Grimshaw in a blog.

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