Sir Andrew Carter is currently leading a review of the curriculum in Initial Teacher Training. He was appointed by Michael Gove to lead the work in May and he’s due to report before the end of the year. That’s a pretty tight timetable for both Carter and the parliament, given that there will be only a few weeks of it left by that point.
Critics will assume it’s just the latest instalment in the Govian revolution. Universities will be particularly concerned that it’s another stage in their demotion or removal from teacher training. They might be right, because the evidence is compelling. Michael Gove initially made much of building on Tony Blair’s school reforms. Wiser commentators such as Anthony Seldon consistently describe the agenda as the ‘Gove Adonis’ reforms. But whatever the origin, the pace of change is rapid. We now see some 1500 Academies,
300 Free Schools, open or in the pipeline and 600 Teaching schools.
The numbers of each are growing by the week.
How are universities meant to deal with this? They can and have objected to the pace, content and direction but to little avail. Gove and his ministers barely talk to vice chancellors and tend to see them as one of the problems, rather than the solutions, to low standards and aspirations. If this trajectory continues then at best, universities will find themselves a long way down the financial and intellectual pecking order.
But the debate is not really about teacher training – it’s about teachers and schools and in universities we don’t talk nearly enough about either. I recently spoke at a Policy Exchange education conference (a right leaning think tank founded by Michael Gove).
Like last year I also attended the Festival of Education – held annually at Seldon’s Wellington College. Both were packed full of teachers debating schools policy, teaching, research, behaviour, standards and so on. But there were very few VCs or principals at either (I actually counted two – one at each). Everyone else was there. Gove and Tristram Hunt attended both – even if at the latter, Gove was 75 mins late and
Hunt only appeared by video.
But there were trade unions and anti-academies speakers as well as those from free schools, academies and teaching schools. There were plenty of journalists – and an army of tweeters and bloggers from the classroom. Most of this latter group – described by some as ‘edu celebs’ – were on platforms and they were largely agreeing with each other on what needed to change in education. And it’s a left right thing. Daisy Christodolou, John Blake, Laura McInerney, Tom Bennett, Jonathan Simons, Sam Freedman and so on – All get regular name checks and mentions in Gove speeches. Much more so than universities or vice chancellors tend to do. Above all, these were exciting and dynamic events. They weren’t just about Michael Gove talking to his faithful audiences.
There were good old fashioned conference ding dongs with trade union leaders and campaigners disagreeing with largely younger voices on platforms and in the audiences. But it dawned on me that this represented what is happening in staff rooms up and down the country. And this was exactly what was meant to happen. And it’s Teach First that is most often the deliberately disruptive innovation that is leading it.
In The Times in the run up to the Festival, Teach First was described as a phenomenon. Like academies, it was introduced by Labour and has been taken to new levels by Gove. Many of the first graduates have long since left the classroom (though many are still there). Both are having increasing influence about what happens inside it. Teach First now claims to be the biggest graduate recruiter in the UK and its graduates are running organisations, think tanks, academy chain research teams, free schools as well as policy. There are several in high ranking jobs at the DFE. In short these are the people that are making the weather.
There are important criticisms. It doesn’t keep people in teaching. It’s expensive. It can’t solve the overall demand for teachers at any point – it supplies less than 1% of workforce needs in any given year and teachers who leave after two years will have only spent a twentieth of their careers in the classroom. A majority – up to 60% leave teaching after two years. They did teach first, but now they are doing something else. Most of the insights and experiences that they take from the classroom are unlikely to be either new or unique. Other teachers may even find them annoying. But these criticisms don’t really matter much. They won’t stop Teach First’s momentum. If anything the flaws in the model help to reinforce the impact and narrative about its ‘success’ as many enter more influential policy roles.
It’s a revolution in thinking and pedagogy. And it’s difficult to know where it will end up. They teach – if often for only a short time – but they blog, they write, they tweet, they reflect, they research and they are having an enormous impact on education policy and practice. For good or bad. It’s certainly difficult to envisage what it will ultimately mean for teacher training in universities. At best it looks like most will no longer be in the driving seat on curriculum, numbers or money. For some it is already terminal. At the very least it looks like a complete rethink of what a school of education in a university is and what it does. It may also prompt a complete rethink of how we engage with policy and political debates. This isn’t policy created in or by committees or academic process, it’s created by social media, from the classroom to blogs and twitter and to policy in rapid and seismic jolts. If we want to influence policy we need to get to grips with how this works as well as what it means. Above all we need to keep up.
But back to Andrew Carter. He’s not a graduate of Teach First of course. I’m sure he won’t mind me saying but he’s been around longer than that and has seen a fair few waves of reform and change in teaching. He runs a group of academy primary schools in Farnham. They have teaching school status. He’s trying to make the training of teachers – once high quality graduates have applied to train – as good as it can possibly be. He has a DFE review team to help him. It’s led by a senior DFE civil servant – a former Teach First graduate.
Postscript: it’s worth remembering that the majority of Teach Firsters are our graduates too. They have chosen to teach in schools rather than in universities even though we have a form of teach first in higher education. Many of the brightest embark immediately on teaching – they have to in order to begin their academic careers. But we don’t listen to them quite as much as head teachers and ministers listen to Teach Firsters.
I wonder what would happen if we did? Combine teaching with training and leadership skills as in Teach First and what might we see? At worst it would be a combination of recent experiences from both studying and teaching. At best it might let loose a new generation of leaders, researchers, teachers, writers, civil servants and so on. That might be electrifying.