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Primary Education News
News Cambridge academics baffled by teacher-training shake-up
The illustrious secondary PGCE course at Cambridge University is one of those facing an uncertain future after the government's changes to teacher training
Not long ago, Cambridge University academics were celebrating receiving what they say is the first ever "perfect" Ofsted report for a teacher-training course, with no areas for improvement. Now, the future of the prestigious course – and seemingly many others like it – is clouded by uncertainty because of changes to the way teacher training is organised. Elaine Wilson, who runs Cambridge's postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE) for secondary school teachers, is baffled by the government's motives.
University courses training England's next generation of teachers had the number of places for which they receive government funding cut dramatically last autumn, as the coalition embarked on a restructuring with the aim of training more teachers on the job in schools.
Higher education institutions across the country, including Cambridge, are now nervous about their futures. Wilson, a former research scientist and chemistry teacher, says: "If the government cuts our core numbers [the student places it funds directly] in future, there is a real possibility that the PGCE will fold. Why are they doing this?"
The government says the new system will be more responsive to demand for teachers, but some say the security of future teacher supply will be put at risk by creating a more market-based system in which schools train teachers and possibly buy in expertise from universities, rather than universities being in the driving seat. The education secretary, Michael Gove, wants more emphasis on students learning about teaching in schools. Many teacher educators have pointed out that student teachers already spend much of their time in classroom placement.
Last July, Gove announced a huge expansion of School Direct, the government's main vehicle for funding teacher training through schools, with a subsequent cut in the number of places funded through universities.
The impact on certain subjects was drastic: the number of university courses funded to train secondary English teachers, for example, was halved, figures published last November showed, from 54 to 28. Nine university history teaching courses, and 11 for geography, lost their funding. Overall, if it recruits as the government hopes, School Direct is poised to expand from 300 to more than 6,000 places from this September, with university-led provision falling by 7%, from 28,000 to 26,000.
Under School Direct, students apply to a school or group of schools. Schools will typically work with a university, which will provide the more academic elements of the training. Crucially, any funding a university receives depends on the business it can win from schools, rather than having funded places allocated to it directly by government.
This month, Prof Sir Tim Brighouse, chair of the left-of-centre pressure group New Visions for Education, wrote that this meant teacher education was going through an "unpublicised crisis", as universities were unsure of likely future funding and thus it would be more risky to take on and retain staff.
University teacher educators say this makes their cashflow much more unpredictable, with school needs likely to fluctuate dramatically and no certainty as to how many School Direct students they will be educating until the courses start.
Adding to the volatility, the government has said that only university teacher-training providers with "outstanding" verdicts from Ofsted are to be guaranteed any funding at all in future years, and even that thought to be at risk in the long term.
Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, raised hackles last month by highlighting the higher proportion of school-based training rated "outstanding", under Ofsted's new inspection regime, than its university-centred counterpart. The Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers described the statement as "overtly political" and highlighted the seemingly small evidence base: only four universities training teachers – out of 73 – featured in the inspection verdicts cited by Wilshaw.
For Wilson, the moves cast doubt on the future of a model that has proved itself stunningly successful. The Cambridge PGCE course, developed over the past 20 years, resembles the Finnish teacher education system, which has been praised by Gove, she says. Students already spend two-thirds of the 36-week course in local schools, with one third in the university.
Cambridge's overall "core" (non-School Direct) funding allocation is only 1% down for 2013-14 on what it was in 2012-13, supporting 413 places overall. The university is also involved with School Direct, having been allocated 20 places through this route, but Wilson feels the future is much less certain. She says: "I am not against change. But I feel I am constantly having to defend what we do here. It is baffling why they are trying to change what we do, and what the evidence for it is."
Cambridge has only filled 10 of its 20 School Direct places so far. Wilson feels the new system has added an extra layer of bureaucracy: under School Direct, although schools take charge of recruitment, students still have to go through the Cambridge faculty's admissions system, too. Another, non-Cambridge, source says many schools taking part in School Direct have been taken aback by the admin involved.
Although there is no immediate threat, Wilson says: "If we find in the future that our funding is cut, the university might well say, 'This is costing us a lot to run; why should we carry on?' We could just become a graduate [research] school."
Faced with the uncertainty, some universities are hedging their bets. The University of Cumbria is committed to both models: this year, alongside government funding for 1,085 traditional university-led places, it has been allocated 315 places for work in partnership with schools through School Direct. Samantha Twiselton, dean of Cumbria's faculty of education, says she has no problem with emphasising the benefits of students being trained in schools. But she says the university is budgeting to fill only 200 of its School Direct places, because it is an "untested recruitment process".
"We could end up with a situation where we don't have enough teachers [nationally] because there's less control of this system [by the government]," she says. "It's now down to the appetite for teachers from schools, who are less predictable: a school with a bad Ofsted or bad set of exam results might pull out, for example.
"There seems to be so much uncertainty, and when you throw in the fact that Ofsted is making confrontational statements, that makes you think, why should I bother? There are vice-chancellors who will say, 'Sod it.'"
Prof Peter Tymms, head of Durham University's school of education, which currently has an "outstanding" verdict from Ofsted, says it would "be in serious trouble" if it lost that rating. He adds: "You talk to people from other countries about how England seems to want to downgrade the role of universities in teacher training and they can't believe it: it seems philistine."
Prof John Howson, of Oxford University, who is a former government adviser on teacher supply, says it seems particularly problematic for primary schools to run their own training. "There are going to be 800,000 more primary pupils by the end of the decade, and so a need for several thousand more teachers. The primary sector cannot undertake that training on its own. I don't see any evidence that the secretary of state has really got to grips with thinking about that."
Whether the government's allocated places for School Direct will actually be filled come September remains in doubt, with one rumour saying that offers have only been made to students for one in 10 of those places so far. This adds to the sense of uncertainty facing this system, as the start of its first year in operation as a major alternative to the traditional university route approaches in September.
A Department for Education spokeswoman says: "Schools have asked for more control over the way teachers are trained so they can better meet the needs of their pupils and take charge of their own profession. We want trainees to learn from the best teachers. Initial indications show that the School Direct programme is proving extremely popular, with a number of schools reporting very high levels of competition for places.
"The move towards a school-led system does not signal the end for the important role that higher education institutions have. The School Direct programme is an opportunity for universities to increase their initial teacher-training places by creating strong partnerships with schools."