School Direct tries to poach trainee teachers off university PGCE courses

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Universities offering initial teacher training have accused the government of trying to “poach” students onto the School Direct programme – even those who have already committed to a PGCE place at a higher education institution.

The claims were made after a memo was sent to all prospective students signed up to the School Direct applications portal of the National College of Teaching and Leadership, suggesting students who had accepted places on PGCEs could still change their minds and apply to School Direct.

It then lists what it says are the benefits of taking the School Direct route, including opportunities for bursaries – despite the fact that these are also available to PGCE students.

The controversy follows growing concern among university providers of teacher education about the future for their departments. 

Under the School Direct system, schools have control over recruitment rather than this being the responsibility of higher education institutions (HEIs), making it difficult for institutes of education attached to universities to plan their provision or staffing levels.

James Noble Rogers, executive director of the Universities’ Council for the Education of Teachers (UCET), alerted HEI providers to the School Direct memo. 

He told them in an email: “You should be aware of the message below that (the National College) has sent to anyone registered on the School Direct applications portal. It is encouraging those who might already have applied for a mainstream PGCE to switch towards School Direct. 

“This could have clear implications for recruitment to your mainstream programmes and you might, as a result, want to keep in close touch with applicants.”

Mr Noble Rogers said the move “appears to be a clear attempt to manipulate the recruitment market and undermine mainstream programmes”.

He told SecEd: “Prospective students may not as aware of School Direct as they are of PGCE, but if they apply both for PGCE and School Direct routes then we will have no idea of real numbers of applicants because some will be double-counted. The government has put a radical new system in place without thinking through the consequences.

“The system is in a state of extreme flux and uncertainty and in some places, chaos.”

One senior lecturer in education, at a large university in southern England, who asked not to be named, said the memo to students was “a sign of desperation on the part of the National College”.

They added: “Not content with stripping places from good well-established providers leading to the closure of courses, they are now determined to smash any vestige of university involvement in teacher education.

“Education departments in universities cannot exist and keep the staffing they have when at every turn they are faced with cuts and now deliberate unprofessional behaviour treating students more as commodities to be bought and sold on an open market.

“To say that the current secretary of state is making a pig’s ear out of teacher education is a gross understatement. Michael Gove took a well-functioning, successful programme for training teachers and, instead of making it better, he is systematically destroying it.”

Meanwhile, Professor Janet Ainley, director of the School of Education at the University of Leicester, has outlined some of the challenges to changes in the way teachers are recruited and trained. She said evidence has shown that the most effective teacher education is delivered in partnership between schools and university. 

She explained: “We believe very strongly that high-quality initial teacher education involves students having the opportunity to work alongside outstanding teachers in local schools, complemented by input from university staff who have the expertise and research relevant to their development.

“In the School Direct model PGCE places are allocated to schools that then have to work with a university partner, which makes it very difficult for us to plan ahead.

“For example, there may be a demand for places in a particular subject specialism one year, but not the next, so what do I do with the member of staff who teaches that subject in the coming year? It becomes very difficult to plan my staffing needs and retain experts.

“This is going to be a very problematic situation for teacher education providers. Mr Gove believes that teacher education is a role for schools but it was never the case that universities did this on their own. It was always done in partnership with schools.”

In response to claims that the National College is poaching students, the Department for Education told SecEd: “We promote the benefits of all initial teacher training programmes in order to attract the best possible people into the profession. Our emails to those interested in teaching are simply designed to ensure that they are aware of all the options open to them – including newer and less well known routes such as School Direct.”


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