Teacher training

DfE hopes snubbed teacher trainers will help plug ‘cold spots’

Senior aide Will Bickford Smith says there's a 'good story' to tell about government teacher training reforms, and urges new PM to 'stay the course'

Senior aide Will Bickford Smith says there's a 'good story' to tell about government teacher training reforms, and urges new PM to 'stay the course'


Ministers are banking on deals between snubbed teacher trainers and approved providers to plug feared supply gaps after the ITT review, but may yet run a “targeted” third accreditation round, a senior official has said.

In an exclusive interview, Department for Education schools policy adviser Will Bickford Smith said ministers had a “range of different options” to ensure there were enough places after the controversial re-accreditation process.

The DfE has already scrambled to form an ITT “sufficiency steering group” amid fears the review, set up to slim down the teacher training market, will slash provider numbers by a third and leave England without enough places.

But despite widespread criticism, Bickford Smith, who will leave the DfE at the end of September to become an adviser to the vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, believes there’s a “really good story” to tell.

“We should remember where we’ve come from, and where we are. It’s amazing that we’re having this conversation about the golden thread. The fact that teacher training and development is front and centre of what government is doing. That wasn’t the case a few years ago.”

The ITT review’s first accreditation round was bruising. Several providers recently handed top grades under Ofsted’s new inspection regime were among those snubbed. Others said they were treated “disgracefully”

But Bickford Smith points out Ofsted and the accreditation process are judging “different things”. Inspectors assess providers at the time of the inspection. Accreditation checks if they will meet strict new criteria from September 2024.

Ministers bank on expansion and partnerships

Sector leaders fear the review will create “cold spots”, leaving parts of England without enough training places in 2024, or even earlier if snubbed providers pull out of the market.

Bickford Smith said the DfE had a “sufficiency strategy”. But ministers are banking on accredited providers being willing and able to expand to fill gaps.

“There will obviously be some providers who want to scale up. There will be other providers who want to expand into different bits of the country.”

They also hope snubbed organisations will join partnerships with accredited providers.

He said there could be a “world potentially where a provider that isn’t accredited decides to join the partnership to join the family of an accredited provider and be involved in delivering that way”.

“If they were to do that, then you can see how provision might be retained in an area, but whilst the overall responsibility for delivering ITT will sit with a different provider.”

But sector leaders are concerned this is naïve.

“It would be reckless in the extreme for DfE to simply cross its fingers and hope the much smaller sector emerging from round two will respond in the way that it wants it to,” said James Noble-Rogers, from the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers.

“The teacher supply needs of our schools are too important for that.”

Bickford Smith seems less worried. A “worst case scenario”, he says, would see the DfE look at “other incentives”, and “in our back pocket, we always have the potential to run a targeted third accreditation round if needed”.

“I don’t think we have the information at the moment to say that we’re definitely going to need to do that.”

DfE ‘could have let Ofsted let rip’

Bickford Smith also revealed the other option faced by the government had involved allowing Ofsted to “let rip” with its tough new inspection framework. Low-rated provision would then have been left to “fall out of the market”.

The government decided on a re-accreditation process, “and then carefully managing the market”, instead.

“Lots of people were just pushing for Ofsted to let rip and for providers if they weren’t good enough to fall out.

“Actually I think we thought at the time that that that was irresponsible. If you care about sufficiency, you have to have some means of making sure that you have that coverage.”

Both UCET and the National Association of School-Based Teacher Trainers (NASBTT) opposed the re-accreditation process.

Emma Hollis, NASBTT’s CEO, said a “fairer and more robust measure of quality which the government already had at its disposal was the Ofsted inspection process”.

But she said allowing Ofsted to “let rip” was “not a phrase I would use to categorise the inspection process”.

England now faces a potential double-whammy of a reduction in courses and a drop in interest in the profession.

The government has missed its secondary teacher recruitment targets for eight of the last nine years, and recruitment looks set to worsen this year.

Bickford Smith admits the situation is “challenging”, refusing to say whether it was a mistake to slash bursaries in 2020 when Covid prompted a shortlived uptick in applications.

But he insists the “best way that we can take the burden off recruitment is to improve retention”, which was the rationale for many of government’s reforms.

ECF has ‘teething issues’

Part of that plan is the new ECF, but the rollout has also not been without “teething issues”, Bickford Smith admits.

A survey by the NAHT union last year found more than nine in 10 leaders reported the ECF had created extra workload for new teachers and mentors.

More recent polling by Teacher Tapp found almost half of primary heads were considering taking on fewer ECTs.

However, they also found nearly half of mentors were not given additional time to work with teachers. One in five leaders said they were not giving extra time for the role.

Bickford Smith said the DfE’s “appropriate bodies” – currently councils and teaching school hubs – should be checking if schools are meeting their requirements. Government has since launched a crackdown.

“I’d love to see the unions come out and be stronger on that,” he added.

But he pointed to more “encouraging” data from the DfE’s own interim internal evaluation. It found 95 per cent of schools were using the provider-led route, and 84 per cent of schools felt well-informed of their options.

Almost all lead ECF lead providers inspected so far have been found to be taking “effective” action to achieve high standards in their programmes. Just one, the Education Development Trust, was told to improve its overall provision.

“We’re right at the start of the delivery process”, Bickford Smith acknowledges. “Of course, with any big delivery programme, you’re going to have some teething issues.”

Curriculum sequencing will remain ‘sacrosanct’

The DfE has pledged to review “all the frameworks” underpinning its so-called “golden thread” of teacher training and development.

Bickford Smith said this review will happen “definitely in the next couple of years”.

But while the government is keen to “listen and learn”, its adviser believes there are “some things that we need to keep sacrosanct”.

One example is the requirements in the reforms on curriculum sequencing. These “might feel rigid”, he acknowledges, but the government will “not change our approach”.

“Just in the same way that kids learn best from a really carefully sequenced curriculum, teachers are exactly the same, not least novice teachers right at the start of their career.”

He is also “not worried” that the new suite of NPQs will squeeze out other sources of CPD, but understands why “some people have felt too overwhelmed, too busy to take on an NPQ”.

“Hopefully this year people will feel that maybe now’s a good time for them.”

DfE ‘not imposing’ its views

Critics of the government’s reforms fear ministers are trying to impose their own narrow view of effective teacher training on the sector.

The DfE has also been accused of trying to push universities out of the system in favour of school-led teacher training.

But Bickford Smith denies any imposition, and insists the DfE is “agnostic” about types of provider.

He also denies claims the ECF is “inflexible”. Schools can choose between the “full fat” funded ECF training option through a lead provider, or their own “DIY” approach.

We’ve got to be absolutely relentless in striving for high quality, and not finding all of it difficult and so jumping on to the next policy initiative

“The frameworks are based on the best available evidence as independently verified by Education Endowment Foundation, not what the department thinks.”

Bickford Smith claims the government has worked with a “really broad church of people”, but accepts the DfE “needs to do more” to engage with school leaders.

“I totally get that with everything that’s going on with the pandemic, reforms to ITT might feel like quite a niche specific thing that lots of them haven’t frankly had the bandwidth to engage with.

“I would love to be able to have more dialogue with school leaders. I’m not sure they feel like that. But I’d love to be able to do that.”

With criticism mounting, and with a change of government on the way, Bickford Smith insists the government must stand firm.

“My message to anyone in government would be: this stuff is hard.

“We’ve got to stay the course. We’ve got to be absolutely relentless in striving for high quality, and not finding all of it difficult and so jumping on to the next policy initiative.”

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One comment

  1. Almost like a network of Teacher Training Colleges?!?! Another step back in time with the Tories… This time it’s back to the golden era of the 1850s!
    The current government (and to a lesser extent their Tory-Lite predecessors) created the fragmented system of teacher training which they now berate.
    The point that none of us really has the ability to effectively oppose or challenge this shows how much our democracy is broken.