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Better together: why teacher education needs universities as well as schools

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 5 February 2020

By Clare Brooks and Jo McIntyre.

For a decade, national teacher education policy has focused on increasing the number of teacher training places in school-led programmes and diversifying the range of providers, and decreasing the involvement of universities.  The idea that universities have too much influence on new teachers and that courses are overly theoretical is not new. Ministers from across the political spectrum have been making these criticisms for generations.

We would like to challenge such dichotomous thinking, which is unique to the English context. It is self-evident that universities and schools work together in initial teacher education (ITE) partnerships and that each have a unique role within this. What has been silenced in the prioritisation of school-led provision in English teacher education policy has been the significant contributions that universities and academic research make as a result of their engagement with ITE. We highlight these below.

Our position has been informed by a debate within the Russell Group of ITE providers (of which we are both members). Acknowledging that this is a specific group within the sector, we have used this network to stimulate a conversation that will resonate across all universities. Drawing on an extended discussion with more than 60 academics from Russell Group universities actively involved in ITE, we asked them: 

  1. What should research informed teacher education look like?
  2. What should research informed teacher education look like from a wider university perspective; what does a research-intensive university have to gain from being involved in teacher education?
  3. What are the responsibilities of research informed teacher education in the current and future policy contexts?
  4. What do research-literate teachers look like?

The key themes that emerged from the discussion show the wide-ranging significance of research-informed ITE, and the crucial role that universities can play to support its development:

  • When it comes to “teacher training”, universities have the opportunity and the responsibility to do more than just the training. As well as ITE, faculties and departments of Education are engaged in research, consultancy and knowledge exchange activities which have influence nationally, internationally and within local networks and communities. In this sense, they have the opportunity to enhance and strengthen the field of teacher preparation, through their disciplinary and interdisciplinary reach, their advocacy across the academy, and their collaborative associations with schools and other educational institutions. An illustrative example is, the EPPSE project which has influenced the provision, policy and practice on early years education around the world, but particularly in the UK.  The significance of such research for ITE and the sector more widely has been underplayed. 
  • University involvement with ITE can be an “influencer” of education more broadly. For some schools and teachers, involvement in ITE is their main connection with research, debates and the field of teacher preparation and education more broadly outside of their own institution. It would be incorrect to assume that this only occurs via the trainee (or student teacher) and their school-based mentor, as being in partnership signifies a much stronger link between the two organisations. The responsible dissemination of research and knowledge, and engagement with knowledge exchange with schools and the communities they serve, is a key role for university-based ITE. This requires careful consideration of partnership and collaborative arrangements, and the social responsibility universities have to their stakeholders and communities.
  • Research within, in and about ITE and for teachers is hotly contested. University faculties and departments of education have a responsibility to offer an informed, ethical and reasoned voice within this contested field. This means highlighting the role of research for teachers at all stages of their career, supporting and critiquing the quality, rigour and breadth of research across education, and acting as role models for research-engaged practice. Our practice needs to be ethically defensible at all levels.
  • There are learning points for universities, too. University-based teacher educators undertake a hybrid role, crossing boundaries between schools and the expectations of the academy. Our vision of a university-based teacher educator however is not just one of a hybrid professional, but of an academic with a strong and ongoing connection to practice. This role is not the same as those who do the equally important work with new teachers in schools. Former expert school teachers need support in transitioning to this role, and adjusting to the different expectations of being both part of the academy and being accountable outside of the academy. 

We feel strongly that these important considerations chime with the new Position Statement to come from the Universities’ Council for the Education of Teachers (UCET) (another organisation of which we are both members). This new statement is significant as it foregrounds the role of the university in ITE, emphasising that educating is a professional, thoughtful and intellectual endeavour that should draw on research as well as practical experience and that educators should use research as a matter of course to underpin, challenge and illuminate their practice. UCET’s Position Statement and the RG discussion are timely and make bold claims for a future vision for the sector with Universities having a central role. 

We want to highlight this ambitious vision for teacher education, and argue that, the elucidation of the distinctive contribution of University-led ITE, makes clear the significant role of universities in ITE partnerships. Universities and faculties and departments of Education take their particular role in developing the teaching profession seriously, mindful of the important work we also undertake for schools, the community, the research field and education more broadly.  

Photo: UCL by Neil Turner via Creative Commons

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