In his address to the NCSL annual conference in 2012, Michael Gove devoted almost half his speech to explaining the School Direct concept and announcing plans for expanding the pilot. The response from most school leaders in the audience was bemusement: “why do we need to worry about teacher training? That’s what universities do; we’ve got enough on our plates.”
I suspect that view seems rather antiquated now to the schools and higher education institutions (HEIs) that have been grappling with how to make the School Direct model work over the past year. Many of these acknowledge that due to tight timescales they went for a fairly traditional PGCE-model this time round, but most are planning for the schools to take on a greater role over time.
The expansion of School Direct has certainly been fast paced and sometimes chaotic. Estelle Morris is the most recent high-profile critic to raise legitimate concerns around the risk of a teacher shortage due to the shortfall in School Direct recruitment numbers this year and the destabilising effect it is having on existing, high-quality HEI provision.
Ministers will have undoubtedly paused for thought over what to do next with School Direct. My guess is they will go for measured expansion: the Department for Education (DfE) has been discussing ways to shift student loans funding from HEIs to schools for the past year or more. If they can agree a way to do that, schools will be put firmly in the driving seat as commissioners of initial teacher training (ITT). The challenge will be to make sure schools can do so in a sufficiently strategic and cost efficient way – and that’s where teaching schools and chains come in.
In The Importance of Teaching white paper, teaching schools were positioned as playing a leading role in training new teachers, but their remit was actually much broader: to transform the culture of professional learning across schools. Too often, it was felt, newly-qualified teachers (NQTs) fell off a “development cliff” once they finished their PGCE and started work because too few schools focused on continuous professional development (CPD).
This year, Vicky Beer, executive principal at Ashton on Mersey, spoke at the national teaching schools conference, where she attributed much of her school’s success to its longstanding commitment to teacher training and staff development. Ofsted reports aren’t prone to hyperbole, so the statement in Ashton on Mersey’s report in April that lessons are of “simply stunning quality” seems a strong endorsement of her argument.
Her premise was simple and persuasive: when you ask experienced teachers to work together to develop and mentor new recruits, you create a dynamic learning culture where the best practice is made explicit and professional collaboration is the norm. As a result, everyone improves.
Ashton on Mersey’s ethos reflects the need for joint practice development (see Judy Sebba’s research, with teaching schools as practical examples of JPD). David Hargreaves describes JPD as: “a joint activity, in which two or more people interact and influence one another.” This is in stark contrast to the non-interactive, unilateral character of much conventional good practice sharing. Hargreaves has argued that JPD must sit at the heart of every teaching school alliance if they are to really add value to the quality of teaching.
Of course, this is easy to say but incredibly hard for teaching schools to do; they need bums-on-seats if they are to make training pay, but JPD is about learning on the job with peers, not going on courses.
This is where School Direct potentially comes in: working with other schools and HEIs to plan and deliver excellent initial training can be the catalyst that unlocks new ways of working on professional development more widely.
But there is a concomitant risk. In the government’s rush to expand School Direct they are putting huge pressure on teaching schools to focus on this above all else. As a result, their wider work on CPD, leadership, research and school to school support is already being sidelined.