Five ways the DfE has damaged teacher recruitment

Teacher training has always been too important to dabble with, as the implications of not getting the very best teachers in front of children in schools will affect the future of our country and society, explains Professor David Spendlove

We should all be seriously concerned about the Department for Education’s two recent communications on initial teacher training, both designed to lower the standards required for new recruits to the profession.

First, there was an unprecedented letter from the minister of state for school standards, Nick Gibb, to ITT providers about “maximising recruitment” by developing those who have the “desire and talent to teach” rather than getting hung up on “whether they are ready to teach at the point of entry” – in essence a naïve coded message to providers to lower the bar” on selecting trainee teachers.

The government has abandoned many of the key principles of its misguided ‘Training the next generation of outstanding teachers’ ITT strategy

This was followed today by the mid-year changes to the skills test requirements – removing the 24-month retake ban for anyone who fails the compulsory numeracy and literary skills test three times. Taken together, these are the biggest indicators so far that the DfE has simply messed up teacher supply and training over the last eight years.

The intention – also stated in Gibb’s letter – to use Ofsted as a lever to enforce the changes to the proposed ITT criteria, represents a clear indication of how desperate and out of ideas the DfE now is in relation to teacher recruitment.

The proposed changes come alongside a series of other unfortunate changes.

These include the move away from protecting school-led providers through the free-for-all of the new allocations process, the removal of regional allocations, leaving some parts of the country more vulnerable than others, the removal of allocations to providers based on the quality of their provision, and the movement away from differential bursaries linked to the quality of degree classifications.

Ultimately the government has abandoned many of the key principles of its misguided ‘Training the next generation of outstanding teachers’ ITT strategy and is now rudderless, without any clear  vision as to the future landscape of teacher preparation. So here are my five reasons why we are where we are.

The closure of the Training and Development Agency

The rapid closure of the TDA in 2012 was simply a reckless act. While I wouldn’t want to be misty-eyed about the agency, there was always a sense of joint endeavour between the TDA and providers in attempting to address recruitment and quality matters. Most significantly, the TDA had both significant and longstanding experience of ITT as well as relative independence from the government and as a consequence, could avoid the knee-jerk politics now played out in ITT.

Attempting to create an ITT market

The divisive policy of firstly expanding the market of ITT providers through rapidly growing school-led provision, then making allocations changes designed specifically to increase the competition in the market, has simply backfired. The marketisation of ITT inevitably created an unmanageable system that the DfE has found difficult to manage and quality-assure.

The complexity of routes into ITT

Linked to number two above is the bamboozling array of ways to train to teach, which has merely caused confusion over the differences or similarities between the various routes into teaching. Added to this are the continual changes to bursaries from year to year, which as yet have no evidence of having an overall positive effect on recruitment.

Teacher morale and pay

Quite simply, existing teachers are the best advert for teaching. Prospective applicants take advice from current teachers. At present it would appear morale in the profession is low, specifically linked to lack of autonomy, workload and pay.

Changes within the DfE

The DfE lacks the kind of longstanding expertise in ITT that the TDA possessed. The rapid change in policy and turnover of staff (both civil servants and politicians) within the department has compounded this – having a damaging effect in establishing any coherence with policy and implementation.

There is no doubt there are significant problems that need addressing straight away, although the government also needs to develop a long-term strategy, working closely with providers, to put in place a meaningful approach to teacher supply and retention. This will require a move away from pantomime politics and ideological shtick and a move towards an unswerving  commitment to establishing a sustainable, capable and content profession.

Professor David Spendlove is strategic director of ITE at the University of Manchester

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  1. Another reason there are problems with recruitment and retention is in recent years the effort spent making able young people think teaching is no longer a career but something you do for a short while. England’s universities should ask themselves why unlike Scottish ones they chose to work with interests that promote this idea of teaching as a temporary job. It is not only the DfE that is to blame for the current mess.