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A teachable moment for Initial Teacher Education?

  • 13 August 2020
  • By Professor Rama Thirunamachandran

This guest blog has been kindly contributed by Professor Rama Thirunamachandran, Chair of MillionPlus, The Association for Modern Universities, and the Vice-Chancellor of Canterbury Christ Church University.

There is no area of our lives that has not in some way been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the education sector, we have seen seismic shifts and while schools, colleges and universities reacted remarkably well to the initial outbreak, there remain many questions that must be addressed to ensure we retain excellence and accessibility across the sector. 

Teacher education is always uppermost in my mind, as my university is a major educator of trainee teachers in the south-east. Indeed, many modern universities are key players in this area, with almost 60% of all students studying Initial Teacher Training (ITT) doing so at a modern institution. 

MillionPlus, the group representing modern universities which I chair, has always seen teacher education as an essential area of provision at our universities and has set up a dedicated Deans of Education Network to focus on the key issues. In recent years, this network has expanded to include non-MillionPlus university members. The network is recognised as a key voice by the Department for Education. In fact, the network has worked closely with the Government on a number of strategic policy developments such as the Early Career Framework, the ITT Core Content Framework and the Recruitment and Retention Strategy. The network also frequently hosts workshops with other key education stakeholders, who by working together have been able to drive real change, ensuring expertise from around the country feeds directly into official policy. It is in this spirit of cooperation that MillionPlus published a new paper last month looking at the future of Initial Teacher Education (ITE) with the National Association of School-Based Teacher Trainers (NASBTT) and with the help and support of the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers (UCET). 

These are incredibly testing times for our schools and for ITT, with issues around safety, placements, and the need to support Newly Qualified Teachers (NQTs) in a uniquely challenging set of circumstances. These many issues are not ones you can simply sort out overnight and they are certainly not ones that any one provider or indeed one type of provider can answer. This is why we have been working across the sector, bringing together the major bodies in university-led and school-based teacher training, to highlight just how crucial it is to pool our experience and expertise with government in order to have the necessary conversations that lead to successful future policy. 

Our paper calls for a formal cross-sector advisory group to be convened by the Government that gives a voice to all parts of the sector and that can address the fundamental questions necessary to create a National ITE Response Plan. This Plan would be able to not just help teacher-education providers but also give all schools confidence that teacher training is being carefully considered with their needs in mind. 

Of course, the number one priority for us all is ensuring that schools can re-open safely in September but we must not lose sight of the fact that when that happens we will be operating in a new normal, with unique circumstances facing those charged with training the next generation of teachers. We know applications for teacher training this year are through the roof, so the demand for places is there, but the Government and the sector must take steps now to ensure the capacity is in place to make the best of that buoyancy. 

Aside from the advisory group mentioned above, our joint paper outlines four core recommendations to help achieve this:

  1.  Initial Teacher Education stakeholders to work together to develop best practice guidance on maintaining a high-quality educational experience for applicants and trainee teachers during the recovery from the pandemic;
  2. the Department for Education to work with the sector to encourage more schools to play an active part in Initial Teacher Education;
  3. the Department for Education to work with the sector to ensure mechanisms are in place to support trainees and Newly Qualified Teachers at this challenging time, with further bespoke support in place to aid the retention of teachers, including the review of bursaries, subject knowledge enhancement courses and a bespoke Newly Qualified Teacher settlement;
  4. the Department for Education to harness and resource the expertise and capacity of Initial Teacher Training providers to boost the availability of crucial high-quality mentoring work. 

Exceptional times call for creativity, innovation and closer collaboration. We believe the scale of the current crisis presents enormous challenges to teacher education; however, we also believe these challenges can be met and that quality provision can still be assured across the country. The creation of a National ITE Response Plan, with input from providers, schools, Teaching School hubs, academy trusts and others, could create a blueprint that would inspire confidence from all stakeholders.

If we are willing to work together and rise to the challenge and. if the Government are open to working with us on these fundamental questions, then we can use this moment to strengthen Initial Teacher Education, bringing forth some positives from this most challenging time.

This plan would address the key questions around safety, placements and the future of recruitment and retention and would complement the work that has already been undertaken by the Department for Education prior to the COVID-19 crisis. From working with the National Association of School-Based Teacher Trainers and the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers on this paper and in other forums, we know the appetite is there for collective action. Equally, over the past few months the Deans of Education Network has met regularly with civil servants, and we recognise their dedication and openness. 

We should not lose this spirit, which is why we are calling collectively for it to be codified into something longer lasting. If we manage this, it is just possible that we can look back on this pandemic in years to come and recall not just what we lost but also what we were able to forge anew.

HEPI’s history of teacher education is available here.

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