According to a Department for Education (DfE) spokesperson, “the biggest threat to teacher recruitment is that the teaching unions and others use every opportunity to talk down teaching as a profession, continually painting a negative picture of England’s schools”. This is the Government’s explanation for why they have missed targets for teacher recruitment for four years running.
In the war of words between the government and the teacher unions , it is perhaps inevitable that the truth of the matter has become one of the resulting casualties. In fact, as everyone working in teacher education knows, the reason the government keeps missing its targets is because, in the drive to switch teacher education to school-based routes, schools recruiting to the School Direct programme have been given a significant increase in allocated training places at the expense of traditional university-based courses. However, as schools are in fact generally very busy with teaching children – as well as because they have often over-estimated the number of student teachers they might be able to realistically recruit – many of these training places have not been filled. This tends to come to light too late in the recruitment cycle for universities to pick up the slack, leading to places not being reallocated, and thus ensuing under-recruitment.
This seems even more serious in the light of figures released by the DfE on Friday showing that record numbers of teachers are leaving the profession at a faster rate than ever with only 75 per cent of teachers who started in 2012 still in post three years after starting – the lowest number since records began. Overall departures are also at a record high with 9.5 per cent of staff in post either leaving, retiring or going on maternity leave – the highest level in more than a decade.
So one interpretation of the picture is that we have a Government driven by ideology to do as much as it can to exclude universities from teacher education in England, creating an unworkable system that does not meet the needs of teacher supply at a time when the profession is haemorraghing qualified staff. There does seem to be at least a grain of truth in this. Think back to Michael Gove – later reborn as a progressive Justice Minister – in his infamous 2012 speech which seemed to sound the death knell for university involvement in teacher education. However, although many would argue that Gove’s bluster as Education Secretary did do significant damage to the education sector, it also illuminated some uncomfortable truths which reflect an undeniably more enlightened strain in Gove’s thinking. After all, it is Gove who pushed through radical changes to adoption law, and who introduced the Children and Families Act, the biggest change to the provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities since Every Child Matters.
In a similar vein, the move to school-based teacher education does have merits. Teacher educators working in universities know that it is partnership with schools which is at the heart of effective teacher education, and recent decades have seen continued development of (albeit debated) ideas about how what the academy has to offer in terms of teacher development intercalates with professional experience in school. Posing the question, “aren’t schools key in teacher education?” in policy terms has contributed to this debate, even if it at times has been very uncomfortable for us in the ivory tower.
So the debate about the relationship between and relative importance of schools and universities in teacher education goes on, just as it does, echoing Schön, in many other fields of professional education. Nevertheless, none of this is an excuse for the inefficient teacher allocation systems that have been in place in recent years and the resulting undersupply of teachers, for which the Government itself really needs to take responsibility. We in university education departments are ready and willing to take up the slack.