Few aspects of the coalition government’s education programme can have been subject to as many mixed messages as teacher education. When the coalition came into office in 2010, we had already heard a lot from ministers about shifting training back into the classroom and about teaching being a “craft” best learnt by observing a master craftsman or woman.
But the reality, initially at least, was different. What the government actually proposed appeared to be something that the teacher education sector could work with and to some extent support. Teaching Schools, for example, could achieve the greater school involvement in initial teacher training (ITT) and CPD that ITT providers have long been asking for.
And statements by ministers were reassuring, with education secretary Michael Gove being explicit about his desire for universities to continue to have a key role in teacher training, and the then schools minister Nick Gibb telling the Education Select Committee – which itself had warned against any diminution of the university role in ITT – that universities would continue to be the main the main supplier of teachers into schools.
And then rhetoric and policy changed. Last July, Mr Gove announced a massive expansion of School Direct, a scheme which involves training places being allocated to schools who then cash places in with an accredited ITT provider to deliver a training package for a teacher whom the school subsequently intends to employ.
When the policy was first announced, it was restricted to 500 places and was designed to meet teacher supply needs unmet through existing mechanisms. The first teachers are now currently being trained under School Direct, and universities are playing their part.
Just over 900 places were allocated in the first year, although fewer than half of these were actually filled. But the system is currently manageable.
What was not anticipated was the massive increase for 2013 which will mean that some 25 per cent of students will be trained through School Direct.
The expansion was accompanied by hostile words. A Department for Education spokesperson said: “For too long left-wing training colleges have imbued teachers with useless teaching theories that don’t work and actively damage children’s education.”
The suggestion is of course nonsense, and is simply a rehash of often-repeated prejudices that probably never had much truth in them and have none whatsoever now. All ITT programmes adhere to requirements laid down by the secretary of state and students spend most of their time in schools. And the quality of training is good, as confirmed repeatedly by Ofsted, through mass surveys of NQTs and by the huge and measurable progress made in national priority areas such as training teachers to teach reading using systematic synthetic phonics.
The government has intimated that it wants School Direct to expand still further. Universities will as a result have to compete increasingly on the open market to contract with schools for places on an annual basis. This could make planning impossible. And the hard-won link between quality of provision and ITT allocations, as set out in the 1994 Education Act, has been largely abandoned.
The government has maintained that the expansion of School Direct is the result of demand from schools, although reports of schools being cold-called to persuade them to accept places cast doubt on this.
Either way, the implications could be huge. The expansion means that there are not enough places left to run what were otherwise extremely popular programmes.
This, ironically, has meant in some cases that universities might not able to work with schools on School Direct because they will not have the necessary infrastructure. And schools that prefer to work with universities under existing partnerships will have that choice removed. So much for a “school-led” policy.
There is a real danger that a combination of School Direct and the new allocations methodology could create a perfect storm under which ITT providers, faced with a situation where they cannot plan from year-to-year, or even guarantee the quality of their provision, will have to think carefully about whether they can continue to train teachers.
That will be a huge shame for the quality of teachers going into schools, our international standing, the status of the profession, and for schools who rely on universities for a steady supply of well-trained and motivated teachers. We might well ask where the concern to protect quality has gone when places are being allocated where there is no track record of delivery or any evidence of the capacity to resource the training.
Furthermore, what is the point of having a more rigorous Ofsted inspection regime when the vagaries of School Direct mean that places follow school demand rather than proof of high quality provision?
Despite the possible consequences of the mass roll-out of School Direct, universities are doing what they can to make it work. But there are many other ways that the government could have delivered its school-led teacher training agenda without taking so many risks.
James Noble-Rogers is executive director of the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers.