Given that Nicky Morgan recognises that good-quality teachers are of “vital importance” to education (A World Class Teaching Profession, DfE consultation, December 2014), you would imagine one of the urgent priorities for our reappointed secretary of state for education would be to ensure we are training sufficient numbers of well-qualified teachers for the future.
It therefore seems extraordinary that initial teacher education (ITE) barely featured in the recent election campaigns by any of the major parties, particularly given the way in which the training landscape has been transformed in recent years.
In my own subject area of geography, school-led ITE routes, which accounted for only 20 per cent of new geography trainees in 2011/12, have expanded rapidly, while the proportion of places allocated directly to universities has reduced by a third.
The Geographical Association recently published a report on the impact of changes to ITE since 2010 and their effects on the quality and quantity of geography teachers being trained to work in English schools.
It drew on evidence from 68 schools and ITE providers alongside a comprehensive review of Ofsted reports and published research data. It provides one of the clearest insights yet into the rapid expansion in school-led training and its impacts on school subjects such as geography.
The good news first. After a decade of declining numbers, the period since 2010 saw a welcome increase in the total number of geography trainees. The average degree class of post-graduate trainees improved, albeit marginally, and there is some evidence that increased choice of routes attracted a greater diversity of applicants into teaching.
It also appears that some good new universities and schools were drawn into the ITE system, and that some school-led providers created innovative and successful courses in a short period of time. Many school leaders responded positively to the increased sense of ownership they gained over teacher training.
Some serious issues regarding training quality also emerge from the research. Not only do we now have a system where some schools regard a degree alone as a sufficient qualification for teaching and are prepared (and permitted) to employ individuals without qualified teacher status, but even within the formal ITE system some trainees receive woefully inadequate subject-specialist input.
Across post-graduate secondary training routes, the research reported specialist input ranging from just a handful of hours in some cases, to more than 200 in others. It also revealed how small school-led partnerships lack the resources needed to employ ITE leaders in each subject specialism, and therefore rely heavily on generic training.
Yet evidence suggests that good-quality ITE balances generic and specialist input with great care. The most effective teachers have “deep knowledge” of the subject(s) they teach, and good training equips them to use their subject knowledge effectively: to plan so that students progress in their learning, to evaluate students’ thinking, and identify and respond to misconceptions. It also develops specialist aspects of pedagogy (fieldwork in geography for example).
The report also revealed a fragmented system. With more than 370 providers of ITE in geography, most created in just the last few years, average training cohort sizes have decreased sharply. Over two thirds of School Direct provision in geography consists of single, isolated individuals, which severely limits opportunities for trainees from the same subject to work together and learn from one another. A good deal of evidence pointed towards teacher mentors – the “unsung heroes” of the ITE system – being placed under increased pressure to fill the gap in specialist knowledge by using their own time to support trainees.
Teacher supply emerged as another concern, since despite the increase in the total number of geographers being trained, supply has not kept pace with demand. With only around 60 per cent of the target for ITE recruitment being met for 2014/15, there are clear signals of a looming recruitment crisis in this and several other subjects, and school leaders are expressing increasing concern about a shortage of qualified applicants. Ironically, there also appears to be a distinct “geography” to the shortage of geography teachers, with an uneven national pattern caused by marked differences in ITE provision across the regions.
Across the North East, Yorkshire and Humberside, for example, there are few university-led places remaining, and new school-led providers have found recruitment difficult. Areas such as this, dominated by under-recruiting school-led provision, are already experiencing acute recruitment difficulties.
The trainees’ perspective was also mixed. Prospective trainees now have a greater choice of routes than previously, and the positive impact of this is to allow them to choose a route best suited to their strengths and preferences. Unfortunately, patchy information about course content prevented applicants from discriminating between courses effectively. In the worst cases, mis-marketing of courses (including by the DfE) created false distinctions between university and school-led provision with the result that trainees felt misled.
The report concludes with a number of recommendations (such as a geography ITE “quality mark”) intended to address these weakness within the new system and to help the secretary of state and others to ensure new entrants to the profession are well prepared to play their vitally important role in education.
Further informationGeography Initial Teacher Education and Teacher Supply in England: A national research report (Geographical Association, May 2015): www.geography.org.uk/news/papersandresponses/
Alan Kinder is chief executive of the Geographical Association.