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Teacher education, research and practice: addressing the recruitment and retention crisis through the reassertion of professional judgement

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 9 July 2024

Female teacher with a white bob haircut leans against a primary school classroom desk. Credit: Hero Images / Adobe Stock

Credit: Hero Images / Adobe Stock.

John Yandell

This commentary is adapted from John’s contribution to the ESRC Education Research Programme event, ‘Education after the election: Priorities for change’, which you can watch back, along with commentaries from speakers covering early years, schools, skills and higher education.

There is a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention in England. This is a long-term problem and there is no sign of it abating, or of any of the measures taken by the last government having had a long-term, meaningful impact in addressing it. In the current year, there is a significant projected under-recruitment of teachers in the primary sector and in the majority of secondary subject areas. Meanwhile, teacher attrition rates have risen back up to pre-pandemic levels. And there is worrying evidence that teaching has become less attractive because it conspicuously lacks the flexible working patterns that are available to graduates in most comparable jobs.

It’s clear that pay and workload are major drivers of this crisis – and that the new government is going to have to address these factors. Labour’s manifesto promises an extra 6,500 ‘expert’ teachers, but it isn’t clear how this increase will be achieved, nor how the problems identified in, for example, the NFER’s Teacher Labour Market in England Annual Report 2024 will be addressed.

But I want to focus on a different aspect of the problem, one that is less directly linked to economic factors (though it does have workload implications). I want to look specifically at initial teacher education (ITE) and the provision for early career teachers (ECTs). In doing so, I want to raise some broader questions of teacher professionalism, of government control and of academic freedom.

The Labour Party manifesto contains the following:

Teaching is a hard-earned and hard-learned skill, Labour will work to further raise its status. We will update the Early Career Framework, maintaining its grounding in evidence, and ensure any new teacher entering the classroom has, or is working towards, Qualified Teacher Status. We will introduce a new Teacher Training Entitlement to ensure teachers stay up to date on best practice with continuing professional development.

While I might be inclined to welcome the reassertion of the value of QTS, everything else in this paragraph signals continuity with the previous government’s policy. What it thus doesn’t begin to acknowledge is how extraordinary – extreme – that policy has been, particularly in the past five years.

With the Initial Teacher Training and Early Career Framework (ITTECF) and the ITT Market Review, what we have experienced is the imposition of unprecedented central control on universities and schools alike: the imposition of a curriculum for teacher education and the imposition of particular forms of pedagogy on teachers. Content is mandated, while other forms of knowledge are proscribed, with compliance micromanaged nationally by central government, down to the level of scrutiny of reading lists and PowerPoint slides as part of the accreditation process.

It is hard to imagine that, in any discipline or field other than that of education, universities would have been prepared to accept so absolute a surrender of academic freedom, or of the responsibility to exercise proper professional judgement. And, with the creation of shadow state bodies such as the National Institute of Teaching and Oak Academy, we are presented with an institutional apparatus that threatens to render peripheral at best, obsolete at worst, the role of universities in the formation and development of teachers.

The ITTECF framework is predicated on very particular views of how learning happens, how practice relates to research, and so, in effect, what it is to be a teacher. In my view, and that of others, it places an exclusive emphasis on a very superficial version of cognitive science, one that denies any possibility of uncertainty or contestation and reduces learning to little more than the operation of memory. It neglects questions of motivation and emotion, of context and circumstance.  It is predicated on the notion that learning happens in individual brains, ignoring all that we know about the vitally important social dimensions of learning.  And it simply doesn’t begin to acknowledge the constitutive role of language and other forms of semiosis in processes of learning and development.

The framework thus created stands in wilful ignorance of long traditions of practice, research and scholarship. And it matters. It is having a pernicious effect in classrooms across the country, where half-baked ideas about cognitive load and retrieval practice have led to the narrowing of pedagogic practice and the imposition of stultifyingly dull routines.

It matters because of how teachers are positioned by this framework. They become merely the recipients of knowledge that has been produced elsewhere. This is enforced by the very grammar of the language that structures the ITTECF – the absolute separation of ‘know that’ and ‘know how’, the former the knowledge that is produced by experts at a very great distance from the classroom, the latter the mere technical application in practice of the fruits of this knowledge.

But this isn’t what is involved in teaching. Teaching is a much more complex, contingent and relational activity than the pale, etiolated version of it that the framework offers. And if sufficient numbers of people are to become teachers, and to embrace teaching as a long-term career, they need to be given the freedoms and responsibilities that enable the job to be done well, and to be experienced as meaningful work.

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