Teacher training is already facing severe challenges because of COVID-19 and reforms due to be implemented this year threaten the sector with a perfect storm, writes Professor David Spendlove

As the political parlance goes, you should never let a crisis go to waste. In 2010, in response to the banking crisis, the coalition government launched an ideological reform agenda allegedly dictated by austerity. Since then, initial teacher education and training (ITET) has been transformed in a political climate often characterised by uncertainty and rapid decision making. In this respect, many of the facets of managing COVID-19 appear familiar albeit that the consequences are much greater this time.

In the initial phase of school closures, lack of direction and poor communication left many providers isolated and vulnerable, unaware if their trainees should be in schools or not and lacking clarity about the financial implications for themselves and their trainees. This absence of guidance and scarcity of authoritative voice for the sector once again exposed a lack of leadership that affects some 30,000 trainee teachers.

What we now know is that ITET providers should continue ‘delivering’ their programmes in whatever form they can, and that their recommendation for trainees’ Qualified Teacher Status will be based upon their trajectory towards meeting the teachers’ standards. Details remain unclear, but we can already infer that although September’s new teacher intake may be ‘paper ready’, many will be lacking recent or sustained classroom experience. These new teachers will join schools that will certainly be preoccupied with adapting to radically different and challenging circumstances.

The stability of the ITET sector is already challenged on all sides

Amid this turmoil of additional development needs and uncertainty about schools’ capacity to provide it, the Early Career framework (ECF) is due for a limited roll out in so-called opportunity areas in September. Not only does putting new policies and practices in place in the midst of a period of rapid readjustment provide additional challenges for many schools, it also limits the ability of the ITET sector to collaborate effectively as a whole to support all Newly Qualified Teachers. It remains my view, more than ever, that where possible the most appropriate people to support NQTs through their transition are those who supported them through their training. As such, the DfE should urgently rethink its strategy in the interest of all new teachers.

Moreover, ITET providers are preoccupied adapting their existing programmes to the COVID-19 crisis while also planning for the implementation of the Core Content Framework (CCF), rushed out last November. Continuing with the CCF at this stage appears to be an unnecessary burden. Likewise, given that the new Ofsted ITE inspection framework – also due to be implemented next year – will likely inspect the integration of the CCF, both should at the very least be paused. This is not just a matter of fairness to providers but of ensuring trainees get the quality they deserve. It would also be an opportunity for Ofsted to revisit a framework whose development so far has lacked robustness and is in reality far from ready for implementation.

The stability of the ITET sector is already challenged on all sides. Initially, recruitment figures have gone from steady decline to complete freefall. However, a likely economic recession could mean a dramatic rise in applications. As consequence, will the DfE have to reimplement recruitment allocations and controls of some sort? Will they move to finish the task it started a decade ago of shifting the balance of training to a notional school-led system? And all that aside, will access to schools and universities continue to be disrupted by social distancing in September?  If so, the recruitment, selection and initial training of new teachers may be even more challenging than in this initial phase and the DfE will ultimately require a clear strategy to support providers and trainees.

If there is any opportunity at all for the government and its institutions in the current circumstances, it is to rethink policy and ensure the coherence of its trajectory. Taking the opportunity to listen to the sector, to reflect and learn could demonstrate precisely the kind of leadership ITET needs. Anything else would amount to letting another crisis go to waste.