Questions About Initial Teacher Training

In Debates and Polemics by Alex Quigley13 Comments

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We can all agree that one sound method of improving our school system is to attract great candidates into the profession, before training them brilliantly, and then keeping them so that the expensive training pays off long term. Successive governments have thrown their weight behind different initiatives that have tinkered with teacher training, but under Michael Gove we are in the midst of an irreversible shift of the very structures through which initial teacher training is provided.

We are at a significant crossroads. PGCE courses led by Higher Education institutions are in an inevitable decline and the School Direct / Teaching School model is the new king of initial teacher training. TeachFirst has established itself as a consistent provider and has a significant and growing presence in the teacher training landscape. Almost overnight, a market for initial teacher training has emerged. Like with any market, change will be accelaterated, but standards of quality are not guaranteed. There will be successes and failures.

It may be years before we can know if these changes have proven to be a success, or, crucially, an improvement upon the more traditional model of teacher training rooted in the PGCE course – if ever. Therein lies the problem. With the ‘freedoms‘ being provided by this shift in ITT provider we have the responsibility to ensure that the quality of initial teacher training does not actually go in decline, masked in the grand designs of changes to school structures. We have a responsibility to ensure that there is coherence to the changes and to the new structure of teacher training so that it gets better, not worse. With organisations in competition for recruiting candidates we need to be wary that competition does not stifle sharing what works.

David Weston commented recently on watching the teaching documentary ‘Tough Young Teachers‘ that the problems those trainees suffered were typical stuff. They were no different from a decade ago when I took my trembling first steps into teaching. Whether it be TeachFirst, School Direct or the traditional PGCE model – the same needs of new trainees, and the same faults with their training, occur annually. It is therefore that at this juncture of significant change that it is imperative that we research and share what works best.

Surely it is not beyond the bounds of imagination for the Department for Education to seek out answers to what is the best model/s of ITT and to share it. Recently, National Curriculum levels have been removed, in an equally swift manner, so the DfE set up their ‘Assessment Innovation Fund‘ in order to share successful working models. An equivalent approach for ITT, and particularly School Direct course structures, would be useful. We need to search out the evidence of what works best for initial teacher training because not to do so could potentially be hugely wasteful for our profession. Could then the College of Teachers drive this forward independent of the DfE and help raise the standard of ITT to new heights?

Questions abound.

Is there a definitive model for great ITT? What are the essential components e.g. lesson study, behaviour management programmes, research projects, peer observations and micro teaching etc.? Who is sharing this model?

Is there a best model of initial research and theoretical understanding, balanced with time at the front of the classroom? Is there a golden ratio for these different aspects of training?

Do we have outliers undertaking best practice? Are Teaching Schools sharing their best methods and justifying their funding beyond their own institutions?

Is there a thorough and system-wide evaluation of the quality and impact of the School Direct model of recruitment and training being undertaken, or is it at least in the pipeline?

What have organisations like TeachFirst and the most successful Higher Ed teacher training providers learnt about effective initial teacher training over time and how do teaching schools tap into this expertise?

Are we divorcing ourselves from Higher Ed at a time when we need to forge links stronger than ever between practice in the classroom and the highest quality research evidence that can provided through links with universities?

Is there common ground for standardising best ITT practice and evaluating it independently?

Could the not-so-Royal College of Teachers have a role in independently ensuring the quality of ITT provision?

I have so many questions about the seismic shift in initial teacher training provision, but such is the localised nature of these changes, I have very few answers to draw upon beyond anecdotes. I think we should be asking more questions and, for the sake of coherence, the DfE should be leading on sharing the answers.

The market may well drive these changes, but we have a responsibility to share the best of what we do across providers now, otherwise we may find ourselves with a hugely damaging recruitment crisis. Amongst the rapid changes to the structures of initial teacher training we should aim to bring greater coherence by, at the very least, defining what methods work best.

Comments

  1. I am currently training on the School Direct non-salaried scheme and whilst the quality of my training so far has been fantastic – both in my two placements and at University – I worry that the schools do not have the time nor finances to suitably support us at all times. Arranging the second placement was particularly difficult and time consuming for the school and my professional studies programme within school has been hit and miss – this is all going on whilst staff at the University are frustrated they cannot use their adept skills to jump in and resolve such issues.

    1. Author

      I have to say that the anecdotal evidence I have received about the School Direct model is very similar to the issues that you describe. Of course, schools have budgetary pressures that become time and resource pressures. Too often, trainees will suffer under the weight of these pressures. If we better shared what works, with the evidence base, trainees could better expect minimum standards and schools would have models to support their approach. It is all too haphazard for me at the moment.

  2. Some really interesting questions, Alex.

    The most apparent problem with ITT, for me at least, is its duration. Routes into teaching which take a year or less are unsatisfactory. Routes which place a ITT student in front of a class within weeks are unfair on everyone involved – who benefits from the poor quality teaching which inevitably follows from new teachers being thrown in at the deep end? Look at that poor girl on Tough Young Teachers – she was bright and enthusiastic – but was thrown to the sharks like premium grade chum.

    I’d immediately make gaining NQT status a two year process. I was an ‘outstanding’ NQT at the end of my training (get me!) and attribute my success largely to my time spent as a teaching assistant prior to my PGCE. I had a wealth of knowledge in my subject and pedagogy, familiarity/experience in a school environment, time spent working with young people. I’d been eased into education, collaborated with teachers and planned lessons. As a result, i hit the ground running. Many of my contemporaries flapped and floundered – they were expected to teach having had very little practical experience at all.

    I’m not suggesting that prospective teachers need to follow a route such as mine, but a period of acclimatisation and adjustment is vital. A real chance to absorb the culture of schools would be hugely beneficial. Cramming everything into such a short period of time seems absurd to me – during my PGCE i produced masters levels essays, worked in a primary school, did placements in two secondaries, attended lectures, workshops and much more. And this was all squeezed between September and May – nobody should be expected to succeed in such a short period of time – it’s a miracle that so many good young educators emerge from that system as competent, let alone excellent.

    We wouldn’t expect pupils to achieve until we had discussed, modelled and practised sufficiently. Only when the time was right would ask them to produce their best work. Why is training teachers any different?

    1. Author

      I agree with the main thrust of your point. I didn’t even get onto the issue that after ITT the continuous training that follows is often woefully short of what is required. A more thorough stepped progress of learning the craft strikes me as sensible if we want the very best teachers flourishing and staying in the profession. Of course, it won’t happen because it is considered expensive, even though the loss of trained teachers in the early years, often due to inadequate training, is much more costly in the long term. I don’t think we are anywhere near the best model of initial teacher training with our recent structure shift. We have moved the structures but not necessarily improved the training.

  3. I quite like the diversity of opportunity to become a teacher. For some (often parents), the SCITT course is a convenient way to train and in many cases the schools will then recruit those teachers. I qualified at Homerton under the traditional PGCE route which was, I believe, the best start to a career in teaching. I know nothing about Teach First apart from the TV show but I’m not against this model – seems a bit rushed and ‘learning through doing’ possibly but the support appeared to be there.

    The ‘quality mark’ is vital; whichever route someone takes. Shoddy support and low quality training will produce poorly informed teachers who are likely to suffer in the classroom. This in turn will affect retention.

    1. Author

      Yes – a quality mark is vital and diversity has many attendant benefits. It is about consistentcy of quality to standardise the diversity which is crucial. I think the TF model was edited down for dramatic effect I think, but there is much to learn from that model.

      1. Agreed – I like the idea of the College of Teachers being the independent ‘quality mark’ assessor.

        I hope TF was edited down for dramatic affect… An ex student of mine emailed me the other day – he’d met some Teach First students on a night out and was impressed by their enthusiasm and passion – this has to be a good sign – we just need to make sure these potential great teachers are nurtured and kept in the profession.

        @julesdaulby

  4. Pingback: Questions About Initial Teacher Training | HuntingEnglish | The Echo Chamber

    1. I’m not sure why you say “PGCE courses led by Higher Education institutions are in an inevitable decline” and then go on to ask for evaluation of the various models of ITT.
      What if the evaluation shows that the HE route is a valid and successful route but the courses have all been killed off by places being cut until the HEI decides it is not economical to continue, even with courses graded as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted?

      1. Author

        Hello Mary. My statement was an objective one in terms of courses being cut and numbers being reduced. It was an objective statement in numerical terms, not a judgement of ‘decline’ in terms of quality. My concern is exactly that – the changes as fast and not, in my view, rooted in a substantial evidence base, therefore we are risking a knowledge drain by wiping he HE route from the system. That is why we should evaluate the various models and better connect our entire approach – giving some sense of coherence to our ITT system.

  5. Thanks Alex for a thought provoking summary of the conflicts which simply should not exist between various routes. Forgive the profusion of anecdotes contained within this response. My own experience as tutor within a University based ‘traditional’ provider has led to (yes, I admit) a certain level of defensiveness over these routes, but I hope that I am objective enough to realise that we must not, Canute-like, attempt or be thought to attempt to hold back progress. Simply this: we do not prepare soldiers by training them on the battlefield; we provide extensive initial training ‘at home’, surrounded by peers at similar levels of preparedness. The strength of traditional PG routes lie in the community of trainees and the opportunity to come away from the classroom in order to reflect. The provider attempts to find a range of highly diverse placements and frustratingly we find places more and more difficult to find due in part to alternative routes. We find ourselves judged by Ofsted on our ability to provide these places in a timely manner and therefore, despite the wonderful nature of the course, can only be judged as Good because a small minority of students cannot be placed satisfactorily! We have therefore had our allocation cut. I applaud anyone who puts their head above the parapet to suggest that the PG course should be lengthened, not reduced. Perhaps the best model of success is the 3 year UG route (admittedly primary). It allows for considered reflection of theory, the research projects you mention, increased Beh Man input, superb opportunities for an exchange of pedagogy between students and the chance to develop individual philosophies of education and to examine contemporary issues. Give me a 3 year trained UG QT over other routes, any day. The only problem is the average UG’s level of maturity and life experience. Research and discussion suggest that School Direct is unsatisfactory in terms of subject knowledge, awareness of the ‘wider teaching community’ and developments and theory. I hear of in-fighting and developing resentment among schools working together. What’s more, there is a sense that SD trainees attend our centre based training with the opinion that we are ‘removed’ from reality, that learning theories are irrelevant, that their own observed practice is the best there is. Academically, their submissions are vastly inferior to those of even Y2 UGs, let alone PGs as a result. As an experienced teacher I initially took up my post on secondment with the intention of returning to the classroom. Things haven’t worked out like that, but what I do know is that although I am no longer a class teacher, the opportunity to reflect on my own practice in the light of theory and research has made me twice the teacher I ever was. I am less cynical, more open minded, and better informed. We have 150 years of providing ITT but have been removed from the equation in terms of consultation on what is best. The purse should be irrelevant and investment and dialogue is needed.

    1. Author

      I agree wholly that investment and dialogue is needed. I consciously didn’t focus the article on my debate about the PGCE and SD route. The issues you describe around SD are certainly what I have heard anecdotally. I held off from a full critique as I simply didn’t have the evidence. My concern is the potential disconnection between the expertise provided by university and the ‘baby and bathwater’ approach. I would describe myself as unbiased and seeking more dialogue, investment and overall some systematic coherence to our ITT system.

  6. Later than everyone else, I’ve started to watch the episodes of ‘Tough Young Teachers’ which I recorded at the time. Your comment that the challenges the TYT faced “were no different from a decade ago when I took my trembling first steps into teaching” made me smile, as I’d just been reflecting on how similar MY experience of establishing myself in the classroom was when I started teaching in 1980! And it also made me wonder whether, whatever happens to the ITT model, beginning teachers will be facing the same challenges four decades from now.

    I’m currently doing doctoral research focussing on the transition from deputy headship to headship, and one of the things it’s reinforcing for me is how our preparation is career-long. You want to go into any new job as prepared as possible, or ‘your most prepared self’ as one of my research participants says. But the learning and your development into the kind of school leader you want to be never stops.

    I’d say this is true of teachers too – your training lasts as long as your career. So arguments over how many weeks/months/years ‘teacher training’ should be seem to me to miss the point, rather. You want to make sure that you’re not throwing raw recruits into a den of lions, and all your questions are valid ones, I think, Alex. But you will never start your teaching career fully prepared. It’s the start of a long journey, and you continue ‘building the bridge as you walk on it’ (Robert Quinn). In my view, continuing support and a clear focus on targeted and flexible professional and personal development is really crucial, beyond your ITT.

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