Initial Teacher Education – a Confucian tale for HE

Liverpool Hope University’s founding Colleges began delivering teacher training 172 years ago, and 600 newly qualified teachers still graduate from the University each year. In this blog post, Graham Donelan, University Secretary at Liverpool Hope University looks at recent government changes to teacher training, and considers the potential impact on higher education.

When we consider how government policy impacts on higher education, there’s much to be talked about with recent developments including TEF, international student visas, and the HE and Research Bill (to name a few). However, in this blog post, I’ve chosen to write on something which perhaps provides a microcosm of government thinking on higher education, namely its approach to teacher training.

It is often said that teaching is the noblest of professions – US President Calvin Coolidge said it in 1924; recent Conservative Secretaries of State for Education Nicky Morgan and Michael Gove have both said it. Easy words, but what does it take for someone to qualify to join this noblest of professions.

Confucius put it wonderfully: “Be versed in ancient lore, and familiarise yourself with the modern; then may you become teachers”. I would like to think that to be versed in ancient lore and to be familiar with the modern, a university education is required and learning to become a teacher in that environment would lead to teachers worthy of the noblest profession. However, the last two Secretaries of State for Education have overseen policy developments which on occasion have at worst threatened and at best destabilised the future of teacher education in universities.

The ideological insistence on School Direct where numbers are allocated to primary or secondary schools (or groups thereof) with minimal input from universities has been pursued year after year even when numbers enrolling on such routes fall way short of targets. This leads to the ludicrous situation where the allocation of initial teacher training places is haphazard and last minute. For example, this year universities were offered primary places as courses were starting. How these places were supposed to be filled when applicants would need to satisfy the interview requirements, pass the two skills tests (with waiting lists for dates), obtain an Enhanced DBS Disclosure and the universities would have to ensure suitable staffing was in place and school placements available, I really do not know.

However, this is not that out of the ordinary. Last year, the National College for Teaching and Leadership, the quango doing the Department for Education’s work, decided to abandon allocations to institutions and advised them that they could recruit students until a limit was met; this limit was not published nor even given to providers. The limit was not just for overall numbers but for different school stages and for different subject specialisms.

Not surprisingly that did not work and the experiment has been abandoned for this year. But not before lots of unhappy applicants took out their frustration on universities who heard (literally) overnight that primary teaching recruitment was closed when they had interviews lined up the following day. What a way to find those enthusiastic graduates who will join the noblest of professions. I do believe this is an ideological attack on universities educating our future teachers and surely cannot be justified in terms of the effect on potential students (in a wider policy context where students’ voices and experience are of primary importance).

Overall, what I can’t understand is the apparent contradiction between the government appearing to question the benefit of universities leading the training and education of teachers, but on the other hand expecting universities to somehow demonstrate their expertise in running schools as a condition of being able to charge over £6000 tuition fees. Why not let those universities who have a track record in working with schools do that and allow others to focus elsewhere. After all, the diversity of our HE education system is one of its great glories.

Whilst this only applies to government policy in teacher training, a word of warning to those educating other professionals – even now, most of the references to teaching could refer to social work which has its own versions of School Direct (Frontline, Step Up, Think Ahead) and the direction of travel is towards more on the job training. Given the indications of the HE & Research Bill to allow new providers into the system, who can confidently say that in ten years (or less) we won’t see accountants all trained at one of the big firms, nutritionists at McDonalds or Nando’s, or physiotherapists at the local gym?

The mantra of higher education policy in recent years has been one of market forces, increased competition and less regulation. One can have an argument about whether market forces work in higher education, but it seems that in this area of teacher training as in other areas of government HE policy (student visas is perhaps another good example), market forces are not left to run so freely if they run counter to a certain ideological position.

Student demand appears to be for places in universities, not in school-based training. I wonder if two year degrees might also be pushed onto universities through a not-so-free market mechanism in due course.