The early career framework (ECF) reforms were full of promise. They were met with hope and positivity by a profession that embraced the notion of enhanced training and support for our most junior colleagues. But in a matter of months, they have already become a straitjacket and a workload-inducing tick-box exercise.
The key promise was time – the most cited reason for why things don’t get done (or done well) in schools. New teachers would receive a two-year induction programme and an in-school mentor to support them; they would have a reduced timetable commitment, with time off to access relevant training; and the time off would also apply to their mentors. This additional time would have no implications for their pay progression.
So far, so good. So how did it go so wrong so fast?
When it was first introduced the ECF was framed around the development of working relationships and trust. Very sensibly, its delivery would hinge on the relationship between mentor and mentee. Trusting the profession to do its thing? Allowing us to operate as professionals without swathes of red tape? This was what so many of us had been praying for. Shifting from evidencing everything to within an inch of its life towards rich engagement in educational discussion was exactly what we needed to support our newest teachers to grow and flourish.
Sadly, it still is what’s needed. Despite its pertinence and, evidently, significant DfE funding, its execution has gone awry. ECTs are expected to collect endless evidence, to attend lengthy online seminars that are generalised and often not phase-specific. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that online delivery is fine for keynote talks but not as effective when you want a two-way learning experience. Many of the materials and resources miss the mark and need further quality assurance.
And even if the materials were of a higher quality and more readily personalised, the rigidity of the framework itself means the aim would remain a distant one for many. Expecting ECTs to engage in much of the training in a set order gives little consideration to each one’s starting point, the experiences they may have encountered during their PGCE/ITT course, or their specific needs and wants at any given time. This prescriptive approach takes what should be a scaffold and instead builds a prison.
But one luxury prisoners have is time. Not so ECTs. It simply takes longer to perform key tasks that are integral to the job in your more junior years. Therefore, anything that detracts from an ECT’s ability to focus on the core job ultimately becomes a dreaded cocktail of burden, distraction and anxiety. Sadly, this bitter-tasting cocktail is the poison that fills the chalice of the ECF. And the bureaucracy of it all afflicts mentors as much as their mentees. They feel patronised by how the new framework has been executed, their experience and expertise negated.
Of course, we must ensure we have benchmarks of standards and expectations in place. But we have an equal duty to provide mentors with the scope to personalise learning for their mentees. That’s about time and timing, but it’s also about content and context. As it stands, the ECF’s pedagogical lens filters out so much of the spectrum of educational research that it is basically myopic. There is little regard for the wonderful variety of schools ECTs are working in, let alone the differing needs of phases and pupils.
The second year of ECT training is set to focus on subject-specific matters. But if the execution, materials and approach are built upon the same generic approaches adopted in year one, the impact on retention is likely to be substantial just when we need new teachers most.
Policy makers urgently need to take more time to consider how to develop an instructional coaching model of support for mentors – and then trust them more to deploy it.
There is still time to talk to them and ECTs as part of a genuinely reflective appraisal of the current approach. So let’s take the opportunity, because there is still promise in these reforms, and hope for their impact.