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

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

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3 comments on “20 years on and departments of education are ‘next in line for the treatment’ again
  1. “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.” Why confine your comment about ‘outdated caricatures’ to higher education? The fact that so much of education management and reform is being driven by pure ‘political folly’ at every level is the greatest problem our society has to contend with if we really want to move education into a new century.

    Twenty years ago, as head of a county combined school in Hertfordshire (it wasn’t in Hertfordshire at the time I became head, but that’s another tale), I served for a year as a part-time tutor on the PGCE course run by Hertfordshire University. Many other school-based practitioners would have worked, then and since, alongside colleagues in HE to help prepare new recruits for the experience of working in real schools. It was a vital part of their training and, based on the feedback at the time, helped them feel better prepared for the practicalities of teaching and school life.

    Now, Mr Gove’s reality, in common with most of his predecessors over the last two decades, is motivated by something quite different; the need to be seen as a political ‘tough customer’. Thankfully, leadership is never that one dimensional!!

    Regarding the ‘attack’ on Mr Gove in The Independent, I note with interest your comment that ‘few’ of the signatories “are actually involved in the design or delivery of initial teacher training.” This raises for me, its own observation about leadership.

    I wonder if the 100 ‘enemies of promise’ ever will do more than write letters to a secretary of state who chooses, (as he does about every commentary that criticises his own strange views on education, from whatever source), to rubbish or ignore professional advice? The noble professors may well have a case to argue. However, fine words butter no parsnips. It is time for concerted action. Education, from the crucial Foundation Stage onwards, is too important to be under political control, determined by diktat. It’s time to change the way we manage education in our country, as argued at http://www.ordinaryvoices.org.uk/

    The way forward is through greater collaboration, adapting the most effective pedagogies to suit local circumstances within a national framework of education as argued by M J Reiss and J White, “The National Curriculum: what’s the point of it all?”

  2. khorshedb says:

    I am flattered that Mr Gove thinks all teachers and teacher educators are Marxists, I’m proud to be one of them. Marx was an independent thinker who looked beyond self and advocated a more equitable society – concepts that most teachers and teacher educators employ. So thank you, Mr Gove for defining as Marxists the very people who educated you and those who educated them.

  3. Beth Budden says:

    Why can’t we teachers have a Royal College of Teachers to cement this collaboration once and for all?

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