Guest blog: Teacher education - change, complexity and challenges

03 May 2019

Dr Nick Sorensen, Assistant Dean of the Institute for Education at Bath Spa University, writes about the challenges facing teacher education and the potential for a greater role for universities in the light of the government’s Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy.

The challenges facing those involved in educating teachers are complex and subject to continual change and, in spite of the attention government has given to reforming the teaching profession, we still face the serious problems with recruiting and retaining teachers. The 2010 White Paper The Importance of Teaching (DfE 2010) was a ‘1066 moment’ for the profession, giving schools greater autonomy. This included an explicit shift towards school-led initial teacher education (ITE) and marginalising the role played by higher education. What changes have been brought about by this policy and what are the implications for the future?

Since 2013 a research programme at the Institute for Education at Bath Spa University has been attempting to make sense of how this policy has informed practice. The findings of this programme are published in the forthcoming book Diversity in Teacher Education: perspectives on a school-led system (2019, IOE UCL Press). 

What have we discovered?

A topography of the different routes into teaching in 2015 illustrated how fragmented and diverse the provision of ITE had become. Trying to comprehend the sheer complexity of the pathways was a considerable challenge given that this complexity was not represented in the data. While some have argued that such diversity of provision is a strength, on the basis that not all trainees are the same, it is difficult to gain a clear understanding of the process or the outcomes associated with the different models of provision.

Our research highlighted the importance of partnership, a quality common to all the different routes, courses and pathways. Those engaged in teacher education have always understood that this is a collaborative venture. What is interesting to note is the different contributions that partners make to the professional development of a prospective teacher: these include inputs from universities, school clusters, individual schools and individuals (in both universities and schools) who conceive and deliver the training. These contributions are blended in different ways that characterise the whole.

But what exactly is the role of the university in this process? Are they still seen, in the words of Michael Gove, as ‘the modern Enemies of Promise … more interested in valuing Marxism, revering jargon and fighting excellence’? Fortunately this view has not prevailed and the introduction of school-led approaches has seen many schools appreciating the value of working in partnership with universities. The Post Graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) award, which includes 60 Masters credits, is perceived by many as still being the ‘gold standard’ of teacher education. Many school-centered initial teacher training providers are choosing to partner with universities for the ‘added value’ that the PGCE brings to the statutory Qualified Teacher Status (QTS).

Yet, in spite of all these changes, we still face the challenge of recruiting and retaining teachers. The Department for Education’s response to this situation is the recently published Recruitment and Retention Strategy. To what extent does this offer a note of optimism to teacher educators?

One of the most telling statements is that this strategy ‘marks the start of a conversation with the profession’. This is to be welcomed; for too long, government has been telling the profession what ‘we know’ about teaching. The introduction of the Early Careers Framework addresses the issue of retention through providing teachers with better continuing professional development in the early stages of their career. There is also the aim to “… strengthen and support a mix of provision led by both universities and schools”. The acknowledgement of higher education as a valued partner in teacher education is also to be welcomed.

This is a positive start but there is much more that needs to be done especially in relation to the contribution that universities can make. It would be good to see teaching recognised as a complex activity, demanding intellectual rigour and theoretical understanding in order that teachers can make professional judgements in the best interests of the children and students that they teach. A purely craft-based approach to teaching does not meet these needs; it is through maintaining and developing partnerships with HE that these broader professional outcomes can be met.

Universities also have a significant role to play in supporting robust and valid approaches to evidence-based practice through developing research-literate teachers. This would provide the potential to align the Early Careers Framework with a Masters programme which would enable teachers in the early stages of their career to gain a Post Graduate Diploma, building on the good practice that has been developed in the Teach First programme. Supporting critical reflection on professional practice is an acknowledged way of providing teachers with the resilience and self-esteem to support their long-term career development.