New Year, (not so new) new thinking
As 2019 hits with a vengeance it looks like someone in government is coming up with new year resolutions.
On 3rd January, Schools Week ran a headline stating ‘Ministers will make it easier to ‘try out’ teaching as survey shows appetite for career change’ and on the 4th January the TES ‘exclusive’ headline stated that ‘DfE looks to TAs to help solve teacher shortages’. It’s not surprising that new ideas are needed as also on the 4th January another TES headline read ‘DfE finally admits teacher supply has ‘worsened’’. As David Spendlove (Professor of Education at Manchester University) tweeted on 4th January ‘It’s almost a decade since Gove said we had the best generation of new teachers – time for the government to come clean and Damien Hinds to confirm they didn’t do a good enough job looking after and valuing them’ (@David-Spendlove). Alongside the myriad of policy changes impacting on teachers in schools we have also seen a decade of policy developments in teacher ‘training’, as the DfE so stubbornly call it, which have sent schools and universities along journeys of structural change from HEI / school partnerships for teacher education to school-led provision for teacher training.
So, a decade on, and with the new year underway this blog is one of speculation and imagination. It offers my thoughts on addressing the very real problem of teacher recruitment and retention, and the ever-present need for the teaching profession to be sustained, to grow in capacity to meet existing and new challenges and to be made up of individuals who find their work irresistible because their starting points have created a sense of self-efficacy and collective agency, and because schools are set up to help them continue to thrive and strive. While there are so many things that could be different in schools as workplaces that might better sustain and retain teachers, this blog is about my world – that of teacher education.
In the spirit of seeking out alternatives for a better future I make a plea – a call to arms, a challenge to plan initial teacher education differently. Structural changes at the scale we have seen can prevent us from looking hard at the details of practice, as we become so busy re-organising (rather than reconceptualising) existing programmes, budgets and roles. In prioritising schools as providers of workplace learning we have impacted on the experiences of, and infrastructure for, teacher training. In the current system new teachers are immediately exposed to the performative culture of schools, having their individual successes and failures measured and graded from the moment they arrive, and becoming acutely aware of the relentless ‘standards agenda’. Prioritising teaching placements in what are deemed by Ofsted to the most successful schools (e.g. through School Direct and SCITTS) reinforces this agenda. On the flip side Teach Fist occupies a space which might be characterised as training to teach as a worthy charitable endeavour as an enticement for those entering the more disadvantaged schools. Add to this the alarm of teacher workload and wellbeing and it is hardly surprising that some prospective teachers think certain types of schools are much safer career destinations than others. This was recognised back in 2015 when the teacher recruitment and retention crisis first started to bite and Michael Wilshaw (then the Chief Inspector of Ofsted) said ‘Unsurprisingly, the majority of new teachers opt for a well-performing school in a nice area’.
We can mull over the irony of this statement, or we can look ahead. Wilshaw suggested ‘national service teachers, contracted directly with government and then deployed to a disadvantaged area’ and ‘more flexibility when deciding which schools can lead teacher training’. You may remember the startlingly unsuccessful and short-lived DfE scheme that this proposal triggered (I cannot even remember its name).
I suggest we need to focus on reducing the significant anxiety that many prospective and qualified teachers feel about training and working in more challenging contexts. I fear that new and student teachers are rarely encouraged to innovate and many simply learn how to survive. Recently there has been guidance issued by the DfE regarding workload for student teachers which suggests they need not be planning their own lessons. Instead of new teachers being a source of inspiration and innovation they are now actively encouraged to adopt normative practices, and their potential and energy is not garnered for their individual benefit or that of their students or schools. In the worst cases, instead of building the necessary professional capacity to work flexibly and intelligently to meet ever changing demands of the job, they become less resilient to the stresses of the job.
So, looking for a solution, I have built an imaginary future based on what I have called ‘Project-Teach’. I first wrote about this some years ago (BERA blog, 2015), so perhaps it is not quite right to call it new thinking, but every now and then I come back to it. It is a flight of fancy, but it is not fanciful. It paints a picture of a different approach, with new pedagogic models of teacher education that have the capacity to change the professional outcomes. Through Project-Teach intelligent thinking would be applied to teacher training, drawing on the principles of successful learning organisations, coaching and project-based learning. I suggest that student teachers should be educated not only individually but also in teams which tackle real-life workplace challenges through projects based on research, development and practice. The teams would be supported by co-coaches (drawn both from teacher educators and experienced, serving teachers) who enable their team to develop collaborative, empowering and supportive relationships, as well as the knowledge and skills required for them to tackle the genuine challenges of teaching. The responsibility for the professional learning of all student teachers in a team becomes a collective one; each team is aiming for the best possible outcomes in terms of professional learning, pupil outcomes, and school development. Don’t get me wrong – I am not suggesting ‘The Apprentice’, I do not see this as a competition, and indeed I want to reduce the damaging effects of the wielding of power which can so cripple new entrants into the profession.
If we are to crack the recruitment crisis and make schools sites of social justice we need to make initial teacher education irresistible – the best learning experience one can imagine, one which reinforces aspirant teachers sense of vocation rather than diminishes their sense of efficacy. Much successful adult learning is social and contextualised, and Project-Teach would enable new teachers to develop skills and knowledge through collaboration on authentic and rich learning tasks set in the realities of the full range of schools. The project briefs would be planned by drawing on the combined expertise of the professional and academic co-coaches who would design them to meet the ambitions of the host schools as well as to take account of the development stage of the new teachers. The Teacher Standards (and actually the Mentor Standards too) would develop significance in terms of long-term occupational capacity, rather than simply as a checklist of time and context limited competencies.
We also need to find ways to genuinely release good teachers to support our new entrants, not simply to teach their classes and have the weekly mentoring meeting, but to work alongside them in ways that become mutually beneficial. The irony is that the DfE and Ofsted leave little room for genuine innovation in teacher education in existing HEI/school partnerships; inspection frameworks, policy guidelines, quality assurance and required curriculum and compliances do have a tendency to keep everyone’s noses to the grindstone and to put a lid on creativity. I say that with all due respect to amazing colleagues in this field who show more resilience than we give them credit for.
At the start of 2019 it feels like we are searching again for much needed new ideas – for now Project-Teach is mine. What are yours?
Rachel Lofthouse is Professor of Teacher Education in the Carnegie School of Education. She has a specific research interest in professional learning, exploring how teachers learn and how they can be supported to put that learning into practice.