We were led to expect concessions as a result of the ITT market review consultation. So it’s no surprise the timescale for the reaccreditation of all ITT providers has been slowed and the requirements for school-based mentoring cut back. But the principles underpinning these radical changes remain based on flimsy evidence.
Supporters assert the reforms are founded on American research into ‘practice-based teacher education’ (PB-TE). Putting aside that ITT practices are profoundly different in each country, neither the market review nor the core content framework (CCF) it seeks to enshrine refer directly to the PB-TE evidence base at all. There is just one indirect, five-year-old reference to a pamphlet from a US organisation. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of PB-TE research is not experimental, as these supporters claim, but mostly case study-based. Hardly ‘gold-standard’ by their own benchmark.
Likewise, the CCF itself remains highly problematic, based on amateurish misappropriations of cognitive psychological research, some of which is long past its ‘best-before’ date. Supporters argue that the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has endorsed the CCF as if this is some alchemical device for turning lead into gold. But the EEF has also concluded that the usefulness of “cog sci” theories in the classroom is “limited”, with “uncertainties about the applicability of specific principles across subjects and age ranges”. So which EEF pronouncement are we to believe?
Supporters also assert that there is no evidence that current ITT provision in England is sufficiently good. However, if we are to accept that Ofsted inspections of schools produce some evidence of quality, we have to accept that Ofsted inspections of ITT establish the same. The alternative is to hold that Ofsted doesn’t produce evidence of quality. Sadly, there is something in that. After all, it was only during the preparation of the market review (while schools and universities were disrupted due to Covid) that Ofsted’s judgment of the ITT sector turned negative.
Which leads us to the conclusion that regardless of any appearance of the relaxation in the pace of these reforms, change is pointless unless the Ofsted problem is addressed. It is increasingly becoming a damaging distraction, reduced to a mechanism for government policy enforcement (as ministers promised it would during the 2019 election campaign), fatally undermined by the appointment of some HMI who previously wouldn’t have been shortlisted and the anointment of a chief inspector against the advice of the education select committee.
I was invited to be a member of Ofsted’s original ITE advisory group for the creation of the new inspection framework, where we were told ‘blue-sky thinking’ was encouraged. My optimism soon disappeared with the emergence of a framework under heavy political influence, resulting in my then colleague, Viv Ellis (who co-authored this article), resigning from the group because of Ofsted’s apparent lack of independence – to be replaced, ironically, with a Conservative parliamentary candidate and four perennial DfE ‘experts’ with little ITE credibility. Our fundamental impression was of an organisation under pressure to play politics, reject opposition and quite simply ‘go harder’ when criticised.
So despite these vaunted ‘relaxations’, schools and ITE providers – and with them the supply of quality teaching staff – remain at severe risk from two critical flaws at the heart of these reforms. First, the CCF is not fit for purpose, despite some promise that it will be reviewed. It will simply churn out teachers who can parrot its limited content, rather than the adaptable, innovative, research-informed workforce our schools need. And second, even more fundamentally, given the move to a 3-year inspection cycle, it is no longer possible to rely on Ofsted’s institutional integrity, accuracy or the independence of its judgments.
It may be too late to stop all of these reforms, but there can be little doubt they will continue to cause damage to the sector. The question now is how much we will lose of a sector that Ofsted rated so highly until so recently.
But there is something we can do to ensure education is no longer so politicised, that reforms are truly evidence-informed and independently monitored. And that is to drastically reform, or altogether abolish Ofsted.