The government’s initial teacher training review has the potential to improve some aspects of provision, but could prove to be a missed opportunity, warns Jonathan Mountstevens.
Experience tells me that initial teacher training needs reform.
As a secondary senior leader, I have seen plenty of newly qualified teachers who have imbibed discredited ideas about learning styles and the like, while subject training has been woefully thin for many others.
Therefore I welcome the Department for Education’s decision to conduct a review of ITT.
I can see that this has the potential to improve aspects of provision. For example, where trainees have been taught nonsense, the CCF will provide a shield against it.
Subject specialism shortcomings must be addressed
However, of all the shortcomings I have observed in NQTs, the most serious, and by far the hardest to fix quickly, has not been anything generic, but their subject specialism.
I am not referring to pure subject knowledge, although that is essential, but to the manifold challenges of teaching that subject, in all its complex, confusing wonder, to pupils.
The report’s prescription of a better version of genericism does not address this problem, and the recommendations are simply not ambitious enough.
In what specific ways does the report fail to put the subject front and centre?
The most significant is the lack of assurance that the new lead mentor role will be a subject specialist one. Without this, lead mentors will not be able to oversee other mentors effectively.
Networks of expert subject mentors are of fundamental importance to secondary ITT, keeping a finger on the constantly changing pulse of disciplinary scholarship, identifying trainees’ subject-specific needs as they emerge, and contributing to course design.
These networks are not built overnight. Where they already exist they must be cherished and where they do not, the goal should be to develop them.
Placements proposal presents another problem
Another problem arises because the proposed intensive placements, in unfamiliar settings, will address surface features only.
In order to diagnose underlying blockages in trainees’ understanding of subject structures and how they relate to classroom practice, mentors need to build intellectual relationships with trainees, rooted in sustained dialogue and integrating shared scholarly reading, intensive subject debate and close classroom observation over time.
Finally, the entire tone of the report implies that the subject is a bolt-on to the CCF.
For example, recommendation five stipulates that “providers should develop a detailed training curriculum for mentors…including elements specific to subject and phase”.
This is to put the cart before the horse. The subject should be the central consideration and provide structural shape, since what we teach is logically prior to how we teach it.
This issue goes to the heart of what we want teachers to be.
There are elements of craftsmanship about the job, but treating trainees as mere apprentices will fall hopelessly short if we are serious about developing teachers who can define and deliver powerful knowledge for all pupils.
New English teachers must immerse themselves in the ways their department’s selected texts interact over time to shape pupils’ literary reference points.
Inexperienced History teachers must be able to make decisions on the spot about whether a pupil’s question necessitates a digression further back into the past.
Recently-qualified RE teachers must be able to deal effectively with hostility to sensitive content, and so on.
No amount of training in the application of spaced retrieval will help in these scenarios, but high-quality, subject-specific ITT can meet the need. It is a precious thing, and this review does not begin to address the culture and systems that secure its nurture.
Reform of ITT is necessary but, in the secondary phase, it must have the subject at its heart. Otherwise, this is a missed opportunity.
The recommendations in the report might help to eliminate very poor provision, but there is a chance to do so much more, providing a foundation for a truly world class teaching profession. Is the ambition there to seize it?