Some approaches to teacher formation have been overly theoretical – but government reforms risk formulaic compliance, writes Joe Hallgarten

Our education system is suffering from a chronic mutation of Parkinson’s law: policies, regulations and frameworks expand to fill the headspace available. From the national curriculum to Ofsted frameworks to music ‘guidance’, anything published from government is over-valued and over-interpreted to saturation point.

In the evolving pandemic-ready-forever world, where thinking beyond the day in front of you is tough enough for school leaders, what feels in Whitehall corridors like a helpful document becomes yet another commandment when it hits school inboxes.

Recently, those inboxes have pinged with news of reforms to professional learning. A new early career framework and a core content framework are now accompanied by a suite of NPQs, teaching school hubs and accredited CPD providers.

Taken together, these mark the culmination of a recent trend in professional learning for teachers – a ‘technical turn’. Teachers, especially in their student and early years, are offered increasingly precise training on and repeated practice of various tried and trusted pedagogical techniques – from wait time to retrieval practice to cold calling.

It makes sense; many of these techniques have evidence from cognitive science and classroom trials backing them (although the evidence base is often more contested than proponents pretend). Looking back on my early development in the 1990s, I could frankly have done with more of it. Instead, I was too often left to flounder in a morass of theories with minimal practical application in the classroom, where too many of my pupils also floundered.

But while such precision-engineered CPD should lead to improvements in classroom practice, there is a downside. Reflective leaders will have noted already that a relentless focus on the technical breeds a culture of compliance over curiosity. Principles become prescriptions; possible ingredients become a specific recipe; coaching becomes semi-scripted advice.

True professional learning needs to respect teachers as active participants

Will teachers be enabled to identify and make the changes that are pertinent to their own challenges and moral purpose? Will they want to stay in a profession that appears to value the technocratic and reliable over the developmental and unpredictable? And even if they do stay, will they develop the qualities that will enable them to lead change in and beyond their classrooms in future?

True professional learning also needs to respect professionals as active participants in their development. Building on the welcome focus on technique, professional learning also needs to take an ‘activist turn’, encouraging pedagogical activism that can empower teachers to make changes within their own classrooms, departments and schools.

The challenge will be to keep the ECF and NPQs as minimum entitlements; roots from which teachers can grow in ways that are attuned to their own contexts, talents, interests and values. While confident schools and providers do this, there is a risk that these frameworks follow the dysfunctional pattern of every national curriculum: what starts as a ‘minimum entitlement’ becomes an overbearing straitjacket. The content is rarely to blame – it’s the accompanying accoutrement of assessment and accountability systems that force schools to narrow and shallow their expectations.

The ECF guidance clearly states that it is not an assessment framework. Good. But this is in itself an acknowledgement of the problem. An over-prescriptive approach to delivery could force the ECF and NPQ programmes, and the coaching that supports them, to become reductive and formulaic versions of what they need to be.

So let’s hope the DfE come up with an evaluation process that genuinely understands the impact of these changes and the new raft of funded training, rather than just cherry pick the good news.

Let’s also hope that their management of contracts does not become excessively prescriptive or overbearing, so that providers and schools can see the frameworks as foundations rather than the whole structure.

It may be delusional to hope for any ministry of education to encourage teacher activism, pedagogical or otherwise. But it’s surely within the bounds of reasonable expectations that policymakers have the humility to learn from the unintended consequences of their earlier efforts.

Because without that, the new frameworks will simply grow to fill the headspace and time available.