Factory-farmed teachers will fail our children

The new-look training courses are trying to turn out fully-formed teachers in a matter of weeks, when what they need is time to think and support as they develop. We can’t dismiss the great educational thinkers of the past

The increased focus on competition in education has produced a conveyor belt of quick fixes in systems across the globe. Start-up schools use pedagogical practices that trend like a Justin Bieber tweet. Children smile in videos on YouTube to attract prospective parents, and institutions hang banners outside their premises proclaiming “We are Ofsted Outstanding”. With such branding, a teacher and the class can no longer be the island they once were.

The image of the traditional maverick – think “Oh captain my captain!” from Dead Poets Society – still holds allure. It is a selling point for the strict new “traditional” schools that are all the rage. But appealing to images of public school tradition when a school has been set up in an old office block is a stretch for even the most fertile of imaginations. Flat-pack furniture is a poor substitute for mahogany and teachers who have bought into a pre-packaged vision are unlikely to march children around the car park to illustrate the dangers of herd thinking.

New teachers are spending less time than before in universities thinking, reflecting and questioning, and more time in schools under real pressure. In many institutions they are being relied upon to deliver exam results. In the absence of experience, prescription has become a necessity to ensure quality: this can range from being told what to put on displays through to curriculum and pedagogy. In some places new recruits are trained not only in?what to say but?how?to say it: a scripted curriculum means less risk.

Recruits are being trained not only in what to say but how?to say it: a risk-free scripted curriculum

In systems demanding such compliance, giving trainee teachers the time and space they need to grapple without crampons in the ideological chasm?between educational schools of thought is counterproductive. Who has?time to read Gert Biesta when there are targets to be met? Who can sit and ruminate over the failings of AS Neill’s Summerhill School, or digest John Dewey’s Democracy and Education when there is a person at the back of your classroom telling you to be more economical with language?

New-look teacher training courses are attempting to turn out fully functional teachers in a few short weeks and are therefore unlikely to point their overstressed fledglings towards educational theorists such Henry Giroux, Jonathan Kozol or Dorothy Heathcote. Doug Lemov and his 49 techniques in Teach Like a Champion is the new teacher training bible because it is infinitely more digestible and practical in a data-driven landscape demanding results.

Twitter in particular has become a weapon in the assault against university training. A small number of voices who are relatively unknown in the real world yet are disproportionately influential with government, Ofsted and the media. Some of these keyboard warriors have become one-note trumpets, decreeing that a belief in learning styles indicates teacher-training institutions are not fit for purpose.

With all this excitement, is it a wonder that young teachers on social media buy into the idea that blogs and articles are “the best CPD” out there? Who wouldn’t want to change the world by waving one’s fingers over a keyboard? But, as skilful as it to distil a thought into 140 perfect characters, or write a clever blog or three, it is ludicrous to consider that a teacher’s best training?is?online.

The failings of the current system are being used as evidence of past failings of progressives in the education establishment. The message out there is that many of the greatest educational thinkers can be dismissed rather than expecting prospective teachers to consider why failings arise and make up their own minds.

With this persuasive, almost messianic narrative of change, young teachers can be forgiven for thinking they have discovered all the answers. However, in order to understand the complexity of the system we find ourselves in today, digesting the thoughts of writers from the great educational traditions of the past has to be part of the process.

Training future teachers to resolve individual questions of agency, authenticity, autonomy and curriculum is vital.?We need to grow our teachers slowly and support them as they develop. A young teacher must still answer the very important questions: What is education for? What kind of teacher am I?

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  1. Janet Downs

    Teaching is an intellectual activity and requires high-quality teacher education. But in England ministers think it’s a ‘craft’ that can be picked up on the job. This reduces teaching to having a repertoire of tricks which may work (or not) in a school which is ‘growing its own’ but may fail when the teacher trained in the ‘academy trust way’ moves elsewhere.

    • Yes, and it’s also more cult-like than this. The idea now is that to be a good teacher you just need to arrive as a dynamic, ‘successful’ individual. The implication is also that these untrained teachers need to come and save the kids from the more experienced, better trained dinosaurs that are, apparently, letting our kids down so badly. It’s a manufactured narrative of crisis of teacher ability reinforced by putting them under intolerable pressure.

    • I completely agree that this government’s approach to teacher training (aided and abetted by a retinue of enabling individuals and organisations) is harmful in the extreme. It forms another front in their struggle to reduce the status of teaching and to make teachers more malleable and compliant.

      I think we agree on the most important issues at stake here, but I take issue with your rather contemptuous attitude towards ‘craft’. In your comment you treat craft as a species of unreflective activity, which you contrast with the ‘intellectual’ activity of teaching. Craftspeople, it seems, are people who employ a ‘repertoire of tricks’, which are learned on the job and (presumably) mindlessly repeated.

      Well, writing as both a teacher and a craftsperson, I have to disagree. Craft skills and knowledge are acquired through arduous training and many thousands of hours of dedicated practice. In his marvellous book, ‘The Craftsman’ (http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Craftsman-Richard-Sennett-x/dp/0141022094), Richard Sennett describes the ways in which craftspeople (including practitioners such as teachers and surgeons) come to understand their discipline and develop exquisite sensitivity to their own abilities and limitations, as well as the idiosyncrasies of the materials, tools, people etc they interact with. Sennett’s notion of craft may be too broad for many people to accept, but the idea that crafts are endlessly repetitive and unimaginative activities is simply false.

      If I compare three different views of teaching (Is it a profession, a vocation or a craft?), I find craft the most honest and satisfying. ‘Vocation’ is undoubtedly the most objectionable designation; it reeks of elitism and the assumption that teachers comprise some sort of honoured elect. ‘Profession’ is thin gruel. The indifference with which teachers have greeted the proposed College of Teaching shows how little they care for the proposal to establish a body that aims to claim on behalf of teachers something they already feel they own. ‘Craft’, on the other hand, is built on hard graft and mastery. It’s a never-ending quest for excellence, rooted in personal experience.

      You might object that your description of teaching as an ‘intellectual’ activity restores some of its kudos, but I think is far too one-sided. If we downplay the practical side of the job, we are liable to diminish teaching’s claim to be of real value.

      Government manipulation of teacher training is not aimed at producing teachers who approach their job with a craftsperson’s dedication and sensitivity. Rather, they aim to produce teachers who lack the autonomy and confidence that are exemplified in craft. If anything, teaching needs more craftspeople, rather than fewer.

  2. Mike Ollertion

    I think this is a brilliant piece of writing which raises fundamentally important issues regarding teacher education for initial and continuing professional development. The apprenticeship model is, at worst about putting bodies in front of children. At best it might work to some degree depending upon the crucial skills mentors have. However trainee teachers need to learn about how to teach in different school environments not just the one or two they have placements in.

  3. I agree with a lot of this article. My beef about the current fad for producing teachers super-fast is that I found it took me about 5 years of full time teaching before I became even a passable teacher. I did not realise this after one year of teaching, but looking back after 37 years in the job I don’t believe most good graduates can achieve a good teaching standard without this length of experience.

    When I contemplate the underlying philosophy of the DfE, that any graduate can become a teacher with little or no training, or experience, I know we are being led by adolescents. As Janet Downs says, teaching is an intellectual activity. But it is also a job requiring a high level of skill built up through much experience.

    We should put in place a training system which treats teachers like a fine wine, that develops slowly, becoming rounded, and improving with time. We can all buy cheap, fast produced wine, with little subtlety and rough taste, but is that the model we aspire to in a high quality education system?

    • I agree that teachers need time to develop. In my opinion, we also need to engage with the education debates in a less personal and more intellectual (less insulting) manner. Whether this is going to happen is a different matter, in today’s environment of SLTs not teaching and judging, Ofsted style, lessons on subjects they have no knowledge of. The increase of paperwork and numerical targets based on a misuse of statistics is not helping either. In this environment there are many teachers who are leaving their teaching careers and therefore not having enough time to develop. (I am avoiding the debate of whether teaching is a profession or not, because I don’t see the point and I cannot see how it helps.)

  4. while I sit in an entirely different domain within teaching – this is still an excellent read – great stuff…

    Most of my teaching I learned in my first 19 years and I am still learning – ok, so the majority of experience was in the class room in the first two year however it is this space that forms us and helps us develop our children the minds whom become the future of this nation

  5. Paul Hopkins

    The worry for me is that a government which claims over and over again to believe in evidence and in evidence based practice choose ideology over evidence when it comes to teacher education – both locally and internationally. Most of those world systems that the government claims it want to emulate train their teachers via the academic route of the university but we have a current government in the UK who seem determined to removed universities from the pre-service route as much as possible. The balance between discipline (subject) and pedagogical (teaching) knowledge is subtle and different for those teaching EYFS, primary, secondary and further education and the removal of this vital area of pre-service education is a calamity – and not just a moral and pedagogic one but as the National Audit Office shows a financial one as well.

    We need a serious re-think about teacher education encouraging a more nuanced approach from subject development (undergraduate studies) into pedagogic development (undergraduate [let’s not forgot the BEd(QTS)/BA(QTS) routes] or postgraduate) and then continued support and development in the first years of teaching with supported reflection and study time (full Masters level for all teachers). Schools of course have a vital part to play in this – as they have within the system for a long-time but most school teachers do not have the time or the expertise to deliver academic pre-service training and so we end up with a coaching rather than a mentoring model of practice.

    I am convinced that this would pay for itself with increased retention – and at 4x the cost for a Teach First as a PGCE you would not need much increase.