‘If I were education secretary…’

Over the past few years, there has been a grassroots professional rejection of bogus ideas within education, coupled with a wellspring of enthusiasm for more credible alternatives. New ideas — such as direct instruction, spaced and massed practice, curriculum sequencing, and mastery learning — are gaining popularity amongst certain teachers and schools. However, the 65 universities that provide English teacher training are slow to catch on.

I suspect this is because so many of the university-based tutors are detached from the classroom and in the twilight of their teaching careers. I fear they will continue ad infinitum to promote daft and dated ideas about “teaching and learning” until new legislation allows their hold on teacher training to be broken.

Through their exclusive ability to award PGCEs, universities currently enjoy an intellectual monopoly over teaching practices. However, new centres of pedagogical authority have recently been formed, such as academy chains and organisations such as Teach First. These institutions should be encouraged to take the next step in their development, and become awarding bodies in their own right.

In doing so, teaching would become more like other professions. Any non-law graduate who wishes to become a solicitor or barrister has to take the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), which is offered by both universities and private institutions such as the City Law School or BPP Law School.

Similarly, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) examinations can be taken at both universities and organisations such as the Architectural Association.

Another feature of high-status professions is that they regulate the quality of their members with ongoing examinations and qualifications. So, as secretary of state, I would encourage teachers to develop new, more challenging professional development examinations to help to increase the prestige of their profession.

To become a chartered accountant, you have to take up to 14 professional examinations over the course of three years, set by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants. I have friends currently struggling through fiendish examinations set by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development; the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants; and the Chartered Institute of Bankers. The only exam I had to take to become a history teacher was the QTS skills test.

So, to supplement the PGCE, I would encourage optional career development exams, administered by professional bodies, that teachers can take throughout their working lives. These qualifications could demonstrate expertise in areas such as advanced subject knowledge; school management; cognitive psychology; and education research.

Such examinations, coupled with non-universities offering PGCEs, would enable fresh streams of new ideas to feed into the currently rather slow moving river of teacher training.

Robert Peal is author of Progressively Worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools (Civitas, 2014) @goodbyemrhunter


Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


  1. Nils Boray

    Well I did a 4 year B. Ed. (Just saying)

    But frankly I think you’re talking bollocks.

    Teaching qualifications should be awarded by Universities – and while I’m all in favour of teaching school (more than in favour – I firmly support them) – they need their qualifications validated by a Higher Education Institution – ie. a University.

    If you think Direct Instruction is a new idea you’ve also got a great deal to learn about education.

  2. I’m aware that this is an ‘opinion’ piece rather than a well-researched professional article. That said, editors of newspapers do have a duty to try and help potential contributors not put their foot in it and appear silly. As many scientists would say, this is so bad it’s ‘not even wrong’!

    It starts well. Yes there has been a grassroots professional rejection of bogus ideas from Brain gym to Learning styles – but the roots of the grass, far from being day to day teachers, are often the training providers. When I started in initial teacher education, after 12 years of school-based teaching in 3 very different schools, I was aware of many ‘consultants’ and training agencies pushing mad ideas as ‘scientific’ ways to improve teaching and learning. As a scientist I needed to order extra NaCl n my department to satisfy staff who needed a pinch of it every time we had another in-house CPD session led by a flash consultant.

    I ‘caught on’ nearly 20 years ago and have never pushed brain gym, NLP, learning styles etc. in my work as a Teacher educator. Interestingly most times it has been practising teachers who have recommended to me things like NLP, VAK etc. not the other way around. In my considerable experience, working in two providers, external examining across 4 others, working in partnership locally with at least 5 more, along with meeting many, many colleagues I can say that the final sentence of the first paragraph is simply untrue. I do not discount the fact that a few providers may still deliver bogus ideas, but to simply say all 65 are ‘slow to catch’ on is an insult.

    But what about these ‘new ideas’? These are not ‘new ideas’ and form a core of teacher education for many providers.

    Mastery learning dates back to the late 1960s and was then seen as ‘progressive teaching’, much railed against by ‘traditionalists’, though I doubt Mr Peal would describe himself as a ‘progressive teacher’. Bloom’s model for mastery teaching is well known in ITT and while many may not specifically call it ‘mastery teaching’, it will be common along with other interesting theoretical perspectives on teaching and learning and is delivered in modified forms by many practitioners that I know.

    Direct instruction? Yes. Been there, done that (probably was doing it before the writer was even born), still in fact doing that with both children and undergraduates. Along with many others I see it as fundamental to teaching. It is NOT the be all and end all, it is not the only pedagogy that should be deployed, but it is core to helping children learn new ideas, concepts and skills.

    Curriculum sequencing – that’s new? When I devised and wrote schemes of work in schools, does Mr Peal seriously think that curriculum sequencing was not important? Along with two colleagues I wrote one of the most successful KS3 science textbook series 15 years ago. Believe it or not curriculum sequencing was what we had to do to make sense of the then government scheme of work. Our first curriculum assignment for the Sussex PGCE is specifically aimed at good curriculum sequencing!

    Spaced or Massed Practice? Again, not new. We have all been through things like the ‘spiral curriculum’, one form of spaced practice that revisits concepts at later dates in new and different environments. Sometimes we build skills across sequences of lessons bit by bit (spaced practice again) when and what depends on the subject, teacher and pupils. Massed practice? Yes, also done that as well in getting pupils to master a technique in a single block. All these things are part of the variety of teaching skills trainees must learn.

    But, and here is a key point, Mr Peal says that our failings in ITE is because we are all ‘detached from the classroom’. Yes and no. Many ITE tutors are recent classroom experts, some split their time between teaching children and teaching teachers, others have sabbatical periods in ITE. I will openly admit that regular teaching of children is not on my timetable. I lead professional studies, but my colleagues taking subject groups are regularly in schools, teaching, sometimes co-teaching, observing, learning, reflecting and across more schools in an average year than many teachers experience in their whole career.

    My own wife is one of those curriculum tutors who loves going into the schools and teaching science alongside her primary trainees. Even I teach groups of children from time to time in real schools. All of us will have close contacts with our partner schools and spend many hours in schools. Not all of us are career academics who see children as data.

    We do not now, nor have we ever really had, a ‘hold’ on teacher training. We have to deliver the teacher training that the various governments and agencies (currently the NCTL) tell us to deliver. We have been subject to delivering everything from competencies which turned into 33 standards which have now been turned into the current standards. We are inspected on what we deliver and how, we are held responsible, not schools, where the bulk of training takes place, usually 24 out of 36 weeks.

    We do not hold any monopoly over teaching practices. Teachers are responsible for their teaching practices not us. We deliver the academic aspect of teaching and learning and we encourage our trainees to be critical of the ideas they see in practice, in the textbooks and in the research literature. We do not, despite popular myths, wish to indoctrinate our trainees or support badly evidenced practices.

    Yes we have exclusivity to award PGCEs as these are high level academic qualifications. A PGCE does not qualify anyone to teach, QTS is the professional qualification that makes a teacher qualified. If academy chains or Teach First wish to become awarding bodies then please make the case. We have private universities that make awards so there is a process. I would be very happy to see the new College of Teaching become an award bearing institution, though many are critical of this stating that it will just make it into some form of professional club.

    Mr Peal also states that “The only exam I had to take to become a history teacher was the QTS skills test.” (I hope he passed more than one otherwise his qualification would be revoked). The skills test is not an exam, it is a test of key skills, as the name suggests. This statement also implies that, unlike many PGCE students, he did not have to produce any high quality written assignments looking at verifying his intellectual engagement with the theory and practice of teaching and learning. I know many Teach First candidates do this I wonder why he did not. These are academic assessments of ability, so the majority of trainees do in fact ‘take exams’ in order to qualify to teach. In addition subject knowledge is regularly audited and tested.

    As for the idea of chartered status, Mr Peal may be surprised to learn that this also exists for serving science teachers. It is Chartered Science Teacher Status (CSciTeach) it is related to Chartered Scientist Status (CSci) and is overseen by the Science Council. I received Chartered Science Teacher Status in 2008 and must provide a record of activity and work in order to renew my status each year. I also hold professional Fellowships with three scientific institutions, the Society of Biology, the Linnean Society and the Geological Society.

    As I read this article, I’m afraid that it got ‘progressively worse’. By all means, Mr Peal, raise valid and sustainable criticisms of the Staus Quo, but please do so with evidence, not anecdotal, misinformed prejudice.