Subject to change: by focusing on universal entitlement, the ITT Market Review makes it harder to build courses around disciplines and local needs
By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 20 December 2021
In a post this term, my colleague Mark Hardman wrote that a fundamental flaw of the Government’s ITT Market Review was its assumption that quality can be measured by adherence to the Core Content Framework (CCF). The problem, he explained, was that the CCF ‘does not refer to subjects in any meaningful way’. And how could it? Given that the intention of the CCF is to provide a minimum curricular entitlement for all student teachers regardless of phase or subject, by necessity it has to be generic.
The problem is that by attempting to make this entitlement applicable to everyone, it fails to satisfy anyone. Fortunately, the solution to this problem already exists. By ensuring that all student teachers receive training that has subject specificity at its core, university-led ITE supports subject-specific interpretations of this highly generic framework and provides programmes that include but also extend beyond the CCF. Unfortunately, the ITT Market Review, despite the recent government response, still threatens to restrict providers’ freedom to construct courses around the particular demands of subjects and local contexts.
Ever since national standards for Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) were first introduced, university ITE providers have become adept at mediating between the generic requirements of governments and the specific characteristics of school subjects. Subject specificity has always been at the heart of ITE provision at the UCL Institute of Education and our secondary student teachers participate in at least 30 taught subject days across the year, not to mention subject specific reading, assignments, enrichment and assessment, all of which are designed to complement, inform and extend their school experiences. Just as the interaction of theory and practice informs all that our students do during their training year, so does the interaction of genericism and subject specificity.
In this subject-rich environment, there are ample opportunities to consider the CCF in subject-appropriate ways but also to go beyond it and to explore the purpose and broader meanings of subjects and the particular interplay between content, concepts and skills that characterises each one.
This latter point really matters. What gets lost in a generic document such as the CCF are the fundamental ways that school subjects – and the disciplines from which they emerge – are structured differently.
All subjects have their own sets of content, concepts and skills but the meaning and salience of each differs across, say, maths and music or science and languages. Let’s take concepts as a starting point. Some subjects are more ‘hierarchical’ than others, meaning that their concepts become increasingly abstract as you progress. Physics is often held up as an example of this: the more advanced the study of physics, the fewer concepts you are dealing with because they conflate as they become increasingly abstract. By contrast, progress in some other subjects is achieved through greater variation, for example in history where the study of a varied range of topics enables students to spot patterns and trends across time and place. What makes history different from physics however is that whilst a prior study of the Roman Empire might be helpful in making sense of the Islamic Empire, one is not contingent on the other, making history a less ‘hierarchical’ subject than physics.
Geography is interesting here as its conceptual distinctiveness emerges out of a disciplinary fuzziness. This is because it draws from other disciplines such as geology, anthropology and economics. What makes school geography special is that it brings these different perspectives to bear on a particular phenomenon or place, helping young people to understand the way that human and physical worlds interact. If progress in physics is characterised by increased abstraction and progress in history is characterised by increased variation, then we might argue that progress in geography is characterised by an increased ability to synthesise. These different manifestations of conceptual progression have a profound bearing on the way we might interpret, for example, CCF references to ‘foundational knowledge’, ‘increasingly complex mental models’ and ‘sequencing’.
Conceptual variation across subjects is matched by the variation and differing role of new skills. Content and concepts still matter in, say, art and music, but in the service of appreciating different forms of self-expression and nurturing creativity (neither of which are mentioned in the CCF). The concept of ‘practice’, often presented in the CCF alongside knowledge ‘retrieval’, looks different in music and drama than it does in English and history.
All subjects, then, are characterised by a different set of relationships between content, concepts and skills and by different forms of progression. Our interpretation of the CCF requires a subject specific lens and for our student teachers, this means access to ITE courses which have subject expertise at their heart, designed and led by professionals with expertise in both ITE and the specific subjects who have the freedom to design courses that are fit for purpose.