Successful ITE curricula are co-designed and co-taught across a partnership, says Jan Rowe

Ofsted’s recent attempt to confirm what some in its research division think is wrong with teacher education raises the important issue of curriculum in initial teacher education (ITE).

But just as with the curriculum in schools, the risk is that a curriculum for ITE – under the threat of inspection – is reduced to a list of favoured theories “delivered” to trainee teachers in lecture halls. Consequently, the curriculum that is enacted during the two thirds of the time that they spend working and learning in schools is devalued or, worse still, ignored.

An exclusive emphasis on the university or “centre-based” contribution (where the powerful knowledge is mediated through lectures, workshops, tutorials, etc) overlooks that successful ITE curricula are co-designed and co-taught across a partnership – and are rooted in that partnership’s shared pedagogical approach and an agreed division of labour and expert knowledge between school and centre-based teacher educators.

Indeed, ITE inspection reports consistently emphasise that to develop “high-quality” beginning teachers, it is a “high-quality” partnership that really matters. And given the amount of time trainees spend in schools, it tends to be the powerful knowledge in the school-based teacher education curriculum that has the greatest impact.

Expert curriculum design in ITE recognises that teacher learning takes varied, but equally valuable, forms across multiple sites; is largely work-based (especially for the PGCE); and has to be planned holistically and in increasingly responsive ways. It isn’t just a matter of what theories one partner (the university or centre) wishes to promote.; Research has consistently shown that without genuinely strong collaboration the daily, messy entanglements of classrooms tend to “wash out” in trainees’ practice any prior theoretical intentions derived from research and evidence.

We forget these lessons about curriculum and about ITE at our peril

The questionnaires Ofsted’s research division recently distributed to ITE providers seem to demonstrate a fundamental lack of understanding of these partnership models. For example, providers were asked, in relation to a rather partial list of possible “elements” of curriculum content: “How many hours have you allocated to delivering each of the following elements in the programme offer this year?”

Such a question also suggests that Ofsted researchers not only misunderstand the concept of curriculum in general, but the nature of an ITE curriculum in particular. The assumption is that the quality of that curriculum can be totted up in hours allotted to a range of discrete topics regardless of subject, phase, school, cohort or individual trainee priorities.

To take the example of classroom/behaviour management, trainees might only experience eight hours of direct instruction that is centre-based (contextualising the issues, introducing both key research-based principles and a basic toolkit). However, to regard these hours as encapsulating the entirety of the planned and enacted ITE curriculum in classroom/behaviour management would be misleading.

What also needs to be included are, for example, school-based coaching specific to trainee, class and subject being taught; collaborative planning and teaching; cycles of observation and feedback; small group rehearsal and deliberate practice of key strategies; systematic investigation and data collection for both continuous learning and summative assessment purposes. All these experiences and more characterise the distributed, multi-faceted nature of an ITE curriculum.

Harry Judge, who died recently at the age of 90, led the early developments of the pioneering Oxford University ITE programme that went on to become a national model for PGCE courses. Harry and his colleagues understood that to have any chance of success, an ITE curriculum had to be co-constructed by the key partners (the placement school as well as the partnership more widely, usually in collaboration with a university) in the course of extended communication with the trainees. It had to be stretched across schools and the university and had to be work-related.

To paraphrase the curriculum expert Douglas Barnes, an ITE curriculum made up only of totted-up hours of theoretical intentions would be an insubstantial thing. We forget these lessons about curriculum and about ITE at our peril.

Co-written by Viv Ellis, professor of educational leadership and teacher development, King’s College London