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You say you want a cultural revolution? Policy borrowing from the East

Blog Editor, IOE Digital10 October 2014

Yun You
When I first arrived in England in 2010, I was shocked by the then Education Secretary Michael Gove’s statement: “I’d like us to implement a cultural revolution just like the one they’ve had in China.” As a Chinese person, the shock was of course from his ‘admiration’ for the ‘cultural revolution’, but also from an English politician’s enthusiasm for learning from East Asian education systems.
What I learnt from my history class and what I heard from Chinese media were all about ‘learning from the West’. Now, there seems to have emerged a reverse tide in England, promoted by a series of international surveys, especially PISA, in which East Asian countries and regions consistently ranked top, much ahead of England. (more…)

Nicky Morgan: time to read and reflect, consolidate and build consensus

Blog Editor, IOE Digital17 July 2014

Chris Husbands
There are two sorts of politician. There are those who are so passionate about the obvious rightness of what they are doing that they think that everyone essentially agrees with them, and enthusiastically build a large coalition to get things done. Anyone, believe these politicians, who is not against me is for me. And there are politicians who are so passionate about the obvious rightness of what they believe that they will fight anyone and everyone who disagrees, however insignificantly. Anyone, believe these politicians, who is not for me is against me.
Michael Gove was passionate about education, and looked for enemies who did not share his fundamental beliefs. Over four years, he took on major policy area after major policy area: school governance, school accountability, teacher education and development, curriculum, assessment, school funding, and so on and so on. The complaint of headteacher unions was frequently that he should slow the pace, introduce no more change, allow things to bed down. But this was to miss the point: for Michael Gove, energetic and rapid change was the essence of what he wanted to achieve, and a diminishing band of enthusiastic supporters egged him on.
My guess is that the instruction from the Prime Minister to Nicky Morgan, Michael Gove’s successor, is indeed to calm things down. One in ten female voters – a key demographic for the Conservative party – work in education. News stories of confusion and demoralisation play badly for any workforce and the stakes are too high. So the premium over the next year will be not on policy change but on messaging – on seeking to manage and administer a radically changed education system.
One of the great ironies of Michael Gove’s time as secretary of state is that over substantial tranches of policy he introduced changes for which there was, or could have been, professional support: most teachers have been trained to teach reasonably traditional school subjects; most teachers want to work in classrooms where their own classroom management is unquestioned; most teachers want to take responsibility for innovation and development. But a secretary of state who slimmed down the national curriculum to a more tightly defined academic core, who placed the EBacc at the core of the accountability system, who strengthened guidance on behaviour management and who believed in school autonomy ends as perhaps the most unpopular and derided secretary of state in modern times. Research on system reform is explicit: ultimately, school systems can only be improved by consent, by engaging and supporting teachers in change.
So the key tasks for Nicky Morgan are clear: first, to take the heat out of contentious policy implementation by building bridges to the profession. Of course, Michael Gove was always lavish in his praise of successful school leaders. But the suspicion was always there that these successful school leaders were being singled out because he believed they were the exceptions, not because they were typical of the majority. Ultimately, any chief executive has to believe in the workforce and its capacity to deliver. Nicky Morgan needs to look for allies, not enemies.
Secondly, she will need to use the resources of the Department for Education quietly and inconspicuously to defuse some of the policy confusions that have arisen as (to mix a metaphor) the tectonic plates of education have been tossed into the air. The accountability of free schools; the relationships between academies and local authorities (who retain over two hundred statutory powers in respect of education); the tenuous hold the DfE now has on teacher supply; the difficulties about school place planning in a world where free-school ‘demand’ has replaced local authority supply planning; uncertainties about teaching as a profession given the deregulatory approach of the last four years.
Thirdly, she needs to look outward. The Gove rhetoric was of a failing school system with some bright lights; the OFSTED evidence is of a largely effective school system, in which the great majority of schools are at least good. The big challenges are about the capacity of schools to grapple with huge changes: the long-term impact of technology on education; the role of schools in community and social cohesion; the role of the school in an increasingly unequal society; the challenge of securing both high levels of excellence and high equity; the role of education as a preparation for work at a time of phenomenal change in labour markets; the continuing challenge of literacy and numeracy amongst the lowest attaining 20 per cent of young people.
These challenges are not confined to England – they face education systems across the world. Some are doing better and more effectively in respect of some of the challenges, but none – as any academic or policy researcher will confirm – are meeting all of them.   Almost all of those involved in education think about them, and there are creative contributions from dissenting voices – they can all be listened to.
Nicky Morgan has two huge advantages. The first is that almost whatever the secretary of state does, children arrive at school and teachers teach them: the system goes on working irrespective of government changes. This means that her own interventions can be judicious and thoughtful rather than impulsive. The second is that, curiously enough for someone starting a new job, she has arrived just as most of the workers and clients disappear for their summer break, so she has time to read, talk and think before the new school year.
But then she faces an enormous challenge, because from the first day back in September – everyone will be watching.

In Defence of OFSTED

Blog Editor, IOE Digital3 February 2014

Chris Husbands 
No-one likes inspectors. The Daily Telegraph reports that TV licence inspectors are three times more likely to be attacked by angry householders than by angry dogs. In Montana, a furious meat processing company owner launched a physical assault on the food safety inspectors who had described his plant as “putrid”. RSPCA inspectors were assaulted almost 250 times in one calendar year. So Michael Wilshaw perhaps has some way to go as criticism appears to come not only from schoolteachers but – strenuously denied – unnamed briefers in the Department for Education, criticism which, he said, left him “spitting blood”.
School inspection in England has a long history. Her Majesty’s Inspectors were established in 1839, and the nineteenth century reports of inspectors remain as invaluable a source on nineteenth century education as the reports of factory inspectors on working conditions.  HMI developed world-renowned expertise in inspection, though their principal role was to provide information and advice to ministers: it was calculated in the 1980s that at the then current rate of progress, each school could expect to be inspected once every 250 years.
HMI was transformed in 1991. OFSTED was established. Every school was to be inspected on a four yearly cycle and – a critical development – the inspection handbook, which had hitherto been a closely guarded secret, was published as the framework for school inspection. Inspection arrangements, managed by OFSTED and overseen by HMI, were contracted out. The framework has been revised regularly since 1991, and the inspection cycle has been varied, but the principle remains the same: regular inspection based on published criteria. Other countries have also developed inspectorates, and Melanie Ehren from the IOE is leading a cross-national study.
There is little doubt that the twin measures of regular inspection and published criteria have exercised enormous influence on the system, and mostly for good. One of OFSTED’s early straplines was “improvement through inspection”, and the key idea of examining the performance of all schools on the same basis is one, albeit only one, of the measures which have helped to raise expectations of what is possible, of what schools can achieve.
The problems for OFSTED have often been not the inspection framework, nor the principle of judgements: all the research on education assessment and evaluation is clear that evaluative judgements based on public criteria matter. Instead, there have been concerns about variability in the quality of inspection teams, about the reliability of their judgements, about the interaction between a public inspection regime and an ever-tighter accountability framework, and the very serious challenges of sustaining improvement in the most challenging of schools: “improvement through inspection” is a good mantra, but has proved far more difficult to demonstrate in practice. Rob Coe from Durham University has identified the problems for OFSTED: inadequate training in classroom observation produces unreliable judgements about quality, and poor ability to interpret complex data makes it difficult for many teams to contextualise what they see. In a high stakes environment, these weaknesses have profound consequences.
In all this, the issue is, perhaps, less inspection than the weight which is hung on it:  as Melanie Ehren’s project is telling us, inspectorates can work in very different ways. As the reported disagreements between the Department for Education and first the Chief Inspector of Schools and now the Chair of OFSTED suggest, inspection is extremely important. It shapes the way governments, practitioners and the public think about the school system. There are some tough lessons from the history of inspection: there are always tensions between inspectors and policy makers; inspection judgements need to be nuanced as well as incisive; there are always limits to what inspection can do; inspectors stand in the perpetual militarized zone between those who would centralise education and those who would decentralise it. In practice, OFSTED really owns only one asset: its evidence base, still the most comprehensive and thorough evidence base on what happens in classrooms anywhere in the world. It is what makes OFSTED important and relevant, however uncomfortable its findings may sometimes be to read. The independence and integrity of the evidence base are of critical importance. It has been, and remains, a precious commodity in English education.

Teaching WWI: let’s not go over the top

Blog Editor, IOE Digital9 January 2014

 Jerome Freeman and Stuart Foster
As we approach the centenary of the First World War, it comes as no surprise that the controversy around how it should be remembered is gathering pace. The debate heated up over the past week with Education Secretary Michael Gove’s intervention in the Daily Mail, criticising so called ‘left wing’ historians and TV programmes such as Blackadder for depicting the war as a ‘misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite’. This view, he argued, has served to “denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage”.  He also argued that the ‘pitiless’ and ‘aggressive expansionism’ of Germany was to blame for the outbreak of the war.
Predictably, those criticised have hit back. Sir Tony Robinson, Blackadder’s Private Baldrick, responded: “It’s not that Blackadder teaches children the First World War. When imaginative teachers bring it in, it’s simply another teaching tool”. Historians R J Evans and Margaret MacMillan challenged his ‘overly nationalistic’ interpretation of Britain’s role in the war, in which the gallant British Tommy joined up to defend the western liberal order.
One of the challenges for the IOE in running the Government’s First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme will be to help teachers and their pupils to engage with these different and increasingly controversial interpretations, to think critically about the war’s causes, to try to understand how the war was perceived at the time, and to go beyond some of the popular myths that have since emerged.
We have been working with the Universities of Northumbria and Exeter to carry out the first ever national survey of history teachers into how the First World War is taught in schools. The results of the data analysis, due later this term, will give us an indication of the extent to which teachers feel confident enough to tackle some of the complexities of the First World War in the classroom and beyond (whether that is on the battlefield sites of the Western Front or in their local communities).
The results should also reveal the degree to which pupils are given opportunities to pursue their study of the First World War through historical enquiry and whether they are given access to a sufficient variety of sources to allow for detailed and meaningful investigation.
From our perspective we want to move beyond a simple process of handing on a fixed narrative to young people and simply telling pupils what they should know. Rather, we want pupils and teachers to ask difficult questions and actively find things out. A really positive outcome of the project will be achieved when pupils and teachers share the results of their genuine historical enquiries with their schools and local communities.
In addition, our plan is to encourage schools not only to conduct local enquiries but also to ask the big questions, stimulate debate, address controversy and challenge accepted interpretations. To do this we are working with all the major Centenary Partners (such as the Imperial War Museum and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) and a number of leading historians and commentators. One of our biggest challenges is to make a profound and complex history accessible to teenagers, many of whom will be 13 or 14 when studying the Great War. As educators we believe we can achieve this ambitious goal and ultimately help schools approach and understand the First World War in more sophisticated, thoughtful and meaningful ways.
Jerome Freeman is director of the First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Project. Stuart Foster is executive director of the project.

The best that has been thought and said?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital21 June 2013

Dominic Wyse
I welcome the government’s continued emphasis on primary and early years education. I also like the intention to reduce bureaucracy for teachers, and to give schools more control over the curriculum. However I am concerned that these intentions are in danger of not being met if the current proposals for the national curriculum are implemented.
Michael Gove has referred to Mathew Arnold’s well known phrase from 1869, “the best which has been thought and said in the world”. One of his most recent mentions of the phrase came in a letter in response to the report from the expert group on the national curriculum. In his letter Gove said,
I agree with your clear recommendation that we should define the aims of the curriculum. We need to set ambitious goals for our progress as a nation. And we need clear expectations for each subject. I expect those aims to embody our sense of ambition, a love of education for its own sake, respect for the best that has been thought and written, appreciation of human creativity and a determination to democratise knowledge by ensuring that as many children as possible can lay claim to a rich intellectual inheritance. (Letter from Michael Gove to Tim Oates chair of the expert panel)
In view of the lack of attention to oral language in the proposals for ‘English’ in the national curriculum the replacement of ‘said’, with ‘written’ in the quote above, was perhaps prophetic. However, the full context of Arnold’s long sentence stresses the importance of “turning a stream of fresh thought upon our stock notions and habit …” For example, our knowledge of the importance of children and adults being able to think across boundaries might lead to fresh thinking about the use of traditional subjects to organise the curriculum. Or our knowledge from research that the national curriculum in England has repeatedly been seen by teachers as too content laden might lead to fresh thinking about the extensive list of topics proposed for the teaching of history at key stage 2, and the appendices of grammar and spelling proposed for English.
The quote above is indicative of other problems with the proposals. It is regrettable that appropriate aims for the curriculum were not consulted on and agreed prior to building programmes of study. The negative consequences of a mismatch between aims and programmes of study are well understood. As John White argued, on the basis of his finding that most national curriculum subjects had an intra-subject emphasis, “Schools’ first duty is not in the preparation of [subject] specialists, but with providing a sound general education in line with subject-transcending aims” (White, 2005, p. 127).
The statements on aims in the proposed national curriculum prompt too many questions: for example, where is the evidence, rather than assertion, that the “core knowledge” presented in the proposals is what is needed to be “educated citizens”? Who should decide, and who has decided, what is “the best that has been thought and said” in the proposals? Particularly problematic is the suggestion that the proposed curriculum “helps engender an appreciation of human creativity” when no definition is given of how this is interpreted in the curriculum, and attention to creativity in most subjects is negligible as measured, for example, by the lack of explicit use of the terms creative and creativity. Two of the welcome elements of the New Labour national curriculum of 2009 were, a) the more frequent requirement for creativity that required pupils to engage in active forms of creativity (including making and composing), and b) the use of areas of learning rather than traditional subjects to structure the curriculum, a feature which provided a better match with the Early Years Foundation Stage.
The stark disparity between the proposed programmes of study at primary level and key stage three level, particularly in relation to content and structure (for example for the subject English), is a clear example of the inappropriate model of development that appears to have been applied to the structure of the programmes of study. Children at the primary phase should not have their education unduly restricted to the learning of factual knowledge and key skills at the expense of development of their motivation, creativity, problem solving, critical thinking and application through hands-on experience. I recognise the vital importance of key skills and knowledge when set in an appropriate curriculum context, but am concerned about what appears to be an inappropriate ‘secondary school readiness’ model of development.
The structure of core and foundation subjects is different from the structure in the Early Years Foundation Stage. This is unfortunate as close alignment between the two phases, for example using a through-curriculum like Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, is likely to lead to better teaching and learning. The importance of links made across subject areas in relation to pupils’ thinking and in teaching is not addressed. The reason for continuing designation of core and foundation subjects is not explained, something that the Cambridge Primary Review was concerned about (Alexander, 2010).
The treatment of different subjects in the proposals is unbalanced. For example, in relation to the teaching of English, language and literacy, the inclusion of very lengthy appendices of spelling and grammar knowledge to be learned is not supported by research evidence of effective teaching and learning, and the inclusion of such appendices is not a feature of any of the other curriculum subjects in the proposals. The wealth of research into literacy teaching and learning shows that transcription elements of writing such as spelling and grammar are important but their emphasis by teachers must be very carefully balanced to ensure that the communication of meaning remains central to the teaching and learning. The increased emphasis that the appendices represent risks these areas being inappropriately magnified resulting in less than optimal learning.
In short, the proposed national curriculum is not appropriate and needs to be substantially rewritten. I am conscious that there may be an understandable response to this idea that could be described as ‘policy change fatigue’. However, curriculum development that is genuinely owned by schools has positive energy and passionate commitment behind it rather than the often depressing effect of government prescription.
Refs: 
Alexander, R. (ed) (2010) Children, their World, their Education: Final report and recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review. London: Routledge.
White, J. (2005) The Curriculum and the Child: The Selected Works of John White. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

20 years on and departments of education are 'next in line for the treatment' again

Blog Editor, IOE Digital3 April 2013

Geoff Whitty
Michael Gove recently wrote an article in the Daily Mail attacking so-called Marxist teachers and teacher educators, who he characterises as “the enemies of promise”.  Reading this no holds barred critique may well have given many who work in education a strong sense of déjà vu. I sought out a copy of my inaugural lecture at Goldsmiths College in May 1991 – “Next in line for the treatment: Education Reform and Teacher Education in the 1990”. As I noted back then:
“A recurring theme in the pamphlets of the New Right pressure groups is the need to rid the system of the liberal or left educational establishment, which is seen to have been behind the ‘progressive collapse’ of the English educational system and which ‘prey to ideology and self-interest, is no longer in touch with the public’.”  
The answer prescribed by the pressure groups: schools free to recruit whoever they wanted as teachers and any training deemed necessary done on the job. At one level the pressure groups were making a general argument about producer interests, but it was also a more specific attack on the alleged ideological bias of teacher educators. The fundamental problem for this line of argument was that, if the critique of teacher training was right, schools surely needed to be purged of teachers who had “suffered” from teacher training before they could themselves be entrusted with teacher training.
Much has changed in education in the intervening 20 years, and it’s a shame that the contemporary debate does not acknowledge that. Most importantly, the more legitimate criticisms of university-led teacher training of the 1980s and ‘90s have long since been addressed through constructive engagement between government, universities and schools. In that same 1991 lecture, I argued that higher education institutions should actively embrace school-based training and partnership working, and the sector has subsequently welcomed multiple training routes and worked ever more closely with schools. It’s also the case that some of us in university departments of education were involved right from the start in the development of Teach First, one of the teacher training routes consistently praised by government ministers.
All this, according to Ofsted under its previous HMCI and a report last year by the House of Commons Education Committee, has had positive effects on the quality of new teachers entering the profession. It has helped to shape the schools that Michael Gove himself singles out for praise. Current policies, however, are being rolled out in a manner that risks eroding some of the best practice that has developed in recent years and the infrastructure that supports it. Only a couple of weeks ago at the launch of the Ben Goldacre report Building Evidence into Education (pdf) the DfE was promoting an evidence-informed approach to education policy and practice. We need that in initial teacher training policy, too.
Key to an evidence-informed approach, of course, is the responsible and considered use of the evidence. On that basis it was disappointing to see the way in which the first inspection results under the new inspection framework for teacher training were described in an Ofsted press release last week. It included spurious interpretations of limited data and at least one factual error, and it omitted to mention anything that reflected well on HEIs or badly on school-led teacher training schemes.
It was also disappointing to see a report in The Times suggesting connections were being made between the allegedly inferior teacher training inspection results from HEIs and the letter from 100 education academics voicing doubts about the government’s National Curriculum proposals (which had prompted Michael Gove’s article in the Daily Mail) – not least because very few of the signatories to that letter are actually involved in the design or delivery of initial teacher training.
What the evidence does show is that teacher training in the best performing education systems worldwide is based in close collaboration between universities and schools. It would be political folly to disregard the contribution that HEIs are making to teacher supply and quality in England in order to pursue an agenda based on outdated caricatures.
Geoff Whitty, former IOE Director, is currently Professor of Public Sector Policy and Management at the University of Bath and a non-Executive member of the Board of Ofsted. His comments on Ben Goldacre’s recent paper on the use of evidence in education can be found here

Narrowness and imbalance in National Curriculum design

Blog Editor, IOE Digital20 November 2012

Andrew Pollard
A picture of the proposed 2014 National Curriculum for England is gradually emerging. Draft versions of secondary English, maths and science and information about foundation subjects have recently slipped into the public domain. We have had the Early Years Foundation Stage requirements since March, and proposals for primary English, maths and science since June.
So what does this begin to add up to?  How is the Department for Education envisaging the curriculum as a whole, through which learners will progress from birth to 16?
On the one hand, we have the core curriculum for primary schools which is spelt out in immense detail with 52 pages for English, 31 for maths and 40 for science.  On the other hand, one might feel reassured that the Secretary of State does intend to honour his promises to reduce the amount of curricular prescription and give “schools and teachers more freedom to decide how to teach most effectively”. For example, the entire five years of the Early Years Foundation Stage is covered in six pages and it appears that each foundation subject (such as geography, art and PE) is to be described entirely in just two pages covering at least key stages 1-3. With a little more detail, secondary English has been leaked with 6 pages, maths 7 and science 17 – though there may be changes and we can expect exam boards to elaborate.
The apparent brevity of many of these drafts is not necessarily problematic, for it is possible that powerful concepts and significant topics could be identified by rigorous selectivity. Teachers would be able to build on these.  However, it may also be that it is a step too far to limit foundation subject descriptions to just two pages to cover so many years of primary and secondary education – it certainly appears remarkable. With the fragmented information which is available right now, we cannot really judge such matters.
Nor is it clear how Ministers’ apparent decision to devolve drafting responsibility to handpicked individuals and organisations, as described in a recent Guardian article, will pan out in terms overall curriculum coherence. It is to be hoped that their work is being structured by a framework of principles for curriculum design and by a clear statement of overarching aims for the National Curriculum. If documents on these issues exist, they should certainly be published.  The report of the Expert Panel, to which I contributed, indicated the importance of such aims and principles, but it is not clear whether these issues have been followed up.
But perhaps the most striking feature of the emerging picture is the extraordinary unevenness in the degree of specification. If appearances do not deceive, it seems that primary English, maths and science at Key Stages 1 and 2 may be spelt out, on average, in over 30 times more detail than is expected for each foundation subject over the same key stages. As things stand, they will be specified in 4 times more detail than for the same subjects in secondary education.
So what is going on?  Why is there this huge discrepancy between light touch and centralist prescription? Why is it that primary teachers, in particular, must to be told what to do in such detail?  The benevolent explanation is that Ministers are so committed to raising standards in “the basics” that they really, really want to set out high expectations and leave no room for doubt about what is expected. New Labour Ministers were similarly committed when they introduced the National Strategies.
But in relation to these issues, both recent governments have transformed their commitment into policies which seem authoritarian and educationally inappropriate. The key point which has not been understood is that a national curriculum must be designed to facilitate learning, and that this is not the same thing as specifying subject content for teaching.
In Chapter 1 of the report of the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum Review, we spelt this out in very simple terms. We described how education is the product of interaction between socially valued subject knowledge and the personal development of individuals, as facilitated by expert teachers. We explained that teachers therefore need scope to exercise professional judgement to meet the diverse needs of pupils and that over-prescription would thus undermine the effectiveness of teaching. A National Curriculum specification, in other words, must be pitched in ways that are carefully judged to support learning processes rather than overwhelm them.
At a meeting with Michael Gove, I constructed the “whole curriculum” model described in both Chapter 1 and the concluding summary of the Expert Panel Report. He appeared to understand the issues, for he is extremely quick to appreciate arguments. He will, then, realise that the level of prescription presently proposed for primary education is likely to be counter-productive. During the primary years, when establishing good attitudes to learning complements the achievement of excellence in basic skills, micro-management of classrooms by curriculum dictation from Whitehall would be a serious error. It is very surprising to see the Coalition repeating New Labour’s mistakes in this respect, albeit in rather different ways. It may be that significant reclassification into non-statutory guidance could help in part, but the difficulties really need more fundamental resolution including removal of year-on-year prescription.
There can be no doubt that the curriculum should offer breadth and balance. Indeed, the DfE’s own analysis of international evidence (pdf) showed conclusively that high performing jurisdictions preserve a wide range of subjects from ages 5 to 16.  Such breadth was also a firm recommendation of the Cambridge Primary Review and Ofsted reports have reinforced this point many times over the last decade. And of course, breadth and balance are protected by the general requirements of Section 78 of the Education Act, 2002.
However, the much criticised decision to exclude music and art from the secondary EBacc already flies in the face of this evidence, and we may be close to arriving at an even more constraining outcome for primary education. The Secretary of State and his Ministers and officials are highly intelligent people, so when they suggest that ‘schools can choose how they include other subjects’ they know perfectly well that they are creating structures and high stakes incentives which will direct behaviour in different ways. Already, the pattern of subjects studied at Key Stage 4 has significantly narrowed and Ofsted reports published since September using the new Framework for School Inspection offer almost no discussion of pupil achievement in any subject outside the core curriculum.
We must assume that the Coalition Government and its Ministers mean well.  Sadly, their present policies lead in the direction of a narrow and imbalanced curriculum for maintained schools. If implemented, this will be a personal tragedy for millions of children and a national tragedy for us all.
Of course, many independent schools provide superb breadth and balance in their curricula and, in present circumstances, it is no wonder that the academy opt-out is very tempting – for schools can then make their own curriculum decisions. But fragmentation of the system seems a very strange way to provide educational entitlements. Sadly, despite the rhetoric of choice and opportunity, these processes are likely to deepen inequalities in our societies.

The Government was right: as the 2010 White Paper said, the best systems “train their teachers rigorously”

Blog Editor, IOE Digital31 July 2012

Chris Husbands
“The evidence from around the world shows us that the most important factor in determining the effectiveness of a school system is the quality of its teachers. The best education systems draw their teachers from the most academically able, and select them carefully to ensure that they are taking only those people who combine the right personal and intellectual qualities.  These systems train their teachers rigorously at the outset”.
This quotation gets it pretty well right: It is absolutely true that the best education systems in the world attract the brightest and best into teaching and then train them rigorously.  Put differently, in a different quotation: “The most successful countries, from the Far East to Scandinavia, are those where teaching has the highest status as a profession”.
Both quotations are from this government’s 2010 White Paper, The Importance of Teaching: the first quotation is from the body of the text and the second from the introduction, written by the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. In 2010, they got it absolutely correct. It makes it all the more difficult to understand why, just eighteen months later, they are getting it wrong. The decision to remove the requirement that those teaching in (publicly-funded) Academy schools should have Qualified Teacher Status flies in the face of evidence nationally and internationally.
Internationally, the evidence is strong: the status of the teaching profession is related to the quality and status of initial teacher education. England has a very, very good story to tell here. Not least as a result of reforms introduced by the last Conservative government in 1992, requiring all universities to work in close partnership with schools, initial teacher education in England is rigorous, relevant and of high quality. The Ofsted evidence is strong: in 2011, Ofsted reported that highest quality teacher education was to be found in university-led partnerships. Moreover, visitors from around the world come to England to find out how to improve the quality of teacher education. This is a great national success story. Close working relationships between schools and universities, a focus on both research and practice and a concern with standards and pedagogy have produced some exceptional teacher education. There is simply no research evidence at all to suppose that lowering the bar and recruiting significant numbers of unqualified teachers will do anything other than lower standards.
The professional skills of teachers matter hugely. The importance of unpacking subject knowledge in ways which support pupil learning; of understanding how young minds develop; of the ability to plan for the learning of all, including the most gifted and the most challenging; of being able to assess and use assessment to improve teaching; of being able to deploy a range of behaviour management strategies. Teaching is a complex, higher order skill and it depends on high quality training.  None of these things matter any less because a school is an academy or free school rather than a community or voluntary aided school. 
One of the reasons cited by the government for the rule change is that it brings academies into line with independent schools, who are not required to hire those with qualified teacher status. But this makes two errors: first, most independent schools do hire teachers who have QTS, and, secondly, independent schools are not publicly funded. A second reason cited by government is that the rule change will allow schools to hire those with specific skills – talented musicians to teach music, scientists with expertise in industry and so on. But this argument too collapses. First, because of the flexible, partnership based approach to teacher education in his country it is possible to hire people and train them through an employment based scheme. Secondly, the approach equates expert subject knowledge with teaching expertise. Teaching is not simply about imparting facts. It is about engaging young minds, about inspiring learning, about being able to plan the next steps in learning.
The government’s decision is at the very least regrettable. It will do nothing to raise standards and nothing to enhance the status of teaching as a profession. Earlier this year, the government withdrew its plans for taxes on pasties, mobile homes and charitable donations. David Cameron said that the time that it showed “strength and grit” for a government to admit a mistake. It should do so on this measure if it wants to realise the ambitions of the 2010 White Paper.