Review by Sam Twiselton

28 Jan 2018, 5:00

Teacher education in England: A critical interrogation of school-led training, by Tony Brown

Published during a period of great flux in English initial teacher education, this timely book documents the complex implications of the changes we’re experiencing, situating them within a broader international context.

This is important, as ITE systems around the world are (as the author points out) so very different.

It is also true that questions are being asked about the best models for preparing future teachers across the globe. The English context itself is currently far from settled, and as we face the inevitability of more change, particularly in the face of a teacher recruitment crisis, it is important to learn lessons from recent years.

It is also important to understand that the book is written from a very particular perspective, that of university-based teacher-educators. I will come back to why this matters.

Much of what is discussed is familiar and resonates with my own findings during the Carter Review of ITT in 2014/15, in which I was an expert advisor.

Much of what is discussed is familiar and resonates with my own findings

The more extreme challenges to ITE – documented in great detail – illustrate the dangers of a system that is fragmented, often very varied in content and delivery, and emphasises training and practice potentially at the expense of theoretical understanding.

These challenges are made explicit and discussed at some length.

The risks of a system that spreads expertise so thinly across so many different providers were apparent in some (though not the majority) of our visits, and the resultant danger of diluting subject knowledge – particularly in the secondary phase – is something we warned against in the report.

There is also a very interesting and well-argued thread throughout the book that examines the implications of these changes at their most extreme for the roles, knowledge base and skill-sets of teacher-educators based in universities.

While reference is made to those involved in ITE who are based in other contexts, and while the data includes (for example) interviews with school-based mentors, the primary focus is on those who work in the university context.

The conflicts faced by people in this role are examined in depth and will resonate for many who are similarly positioned.

The loss of certain income will be familiar to many, as will the need to diversify and sometimes abandon expertise that is held dear in order to develop new, more flexible and potentially more generic ways of working, and the diminishing collaboration between providers as the competition becomes more cut-throat.

There is a very interesting and well-argued thread throughout the book

There is also a well-rehearsed discussion on the conflict between being research-active and evidence-based in the teacher educator role, and the challenges when there are so many other competing demands on their time.

This brings me to my biggest point of dissonance with the book.

While these challenges are real, and the complexity of the teacher- educator role well documented, they are not new and are not necessarily confined to university-based ITE.

Although this is acknowledged, it doesn’t consistently come through. The author implicitly attributes these challenges to the school-led movement in a way that does not mesh with my experience.

I would also like see more about the positive implications of putting schools at the heart of ITE. In the Carter Review we saw so many examples of how much more effectively theoretical and practical knowledge can be integrated when the school context is more than the place where placements happen.

This necessarily requires schools to take more ownership than in traditional models but – importantly – some of the best examples of school ownership are not in models that would be technically labelled (through allocations methodology) as “school-led”. The book acknowledges some of this but not as thoroughly and explicitly as I would have liked.

I would have also liked more focus on the student-teacher and employing-headteacher perspective.

Having said this, the book is an important read and should help avoid some of the highlighted pitfalls in future policy making and implementation.

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