For months, university leaders have been moaning about the increasing transfer of control of teacher-training programmes in England from universities to schools.
While most have insisted their concerns are for the future of English education, their objections have also carried a strong whiff of self-interest: the changes introduced by the government involve increasing the number of training places available in schools through the School Direct programme and cutting those funded through universities, leaving them at the mercy of schools’ desires rather than their own strategic planning.
But now vice-chancellors have evidence to back up their case, with the publication on Monday of an interim report by the British Educational Research Association (Bera) and Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce on the role of research in teacher education.
While the policy implications of the findings will only be spelled out in the full report, due out in March, it highlights the fact that in other countries there has been a shift away from school-based training and towards university-based teacher education in institutions with relatively high entrance standards and status. It suggests that the education systems that perform best and have improved most, such as in Finland and Singapore, put particular emphasis on research training for teachers.
John Furlong, professor of education at Oxford University and chair of the steering group behind the report, says: «There is strong evidence that research is important in the best-quality teacher education programmes around the world in at least four different ways: it underpins the knowledge communicated to teachers; teachers need preliminary research skills in order to be able to start thinking about their own work; it helps explain how people develop professionally; and, built into programmes, it monitors what programmes are doing, making sure they are staying up to date with the latest developments about how professionals learn.»
Chris Husbands, director of the Institute of Education, says the decision to transfer responsibility for teacher training in England away from universities to schools flies in the face of findings on best practice internationally. «In Singapore, the government is clear: the improvements in teacher training since a low point of low morale and shortages in the 1980s have been driven by improving teacher training through the National Institute of Education,» he says. «I was in Singapore working for the government a few weeks ago and no one could believe what we are doing in terms of de-regulation.»
Joy Carter, vice-chancellor of the University of Winchester, where 12% of entry for 2013-14 was for initial teacher training, says the potential effect of the changes on teacher quality is particularly worrying given the relatively poor performance of British schoolchildren shown in figures published last month by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, comparing standards in maths, reading and science. «If the quality of teaching plummets any further we are in trouble as a country,» she says.
A spokesman for Universities UK, which represents 132 higher education institutions, more than half of which are involved in teacher training, says it is raising concerns «at the highest levels» about implementation of the School Direct scheme introduced two years ago, and will discuss the implications of the Bera report with its members.
Analysis by UUK for 2014/15 shows that allocations for postgraduate training in HE institutions have been reduced by more than 18% to 16,342, while School Direct allocations have increased by nearly 60% to 15,254. This means 37% of all initial teacher-training places are now allocated to School Direct, up from 25% last year.
Drawing on a survey of universities involved in teacher training, the analysis highlights concerns about a potential shortage of trained teachers in some subjects and particular parts of the country. Maths, modern foreign languages, physics and design and technology are way below their recruitment targets this year. But many universities have also expressed concerns about a possible future shortage of English teachers, in which allocations for training places have been slashed. UUK understands that only 14 English trainees have been allocated to the whole of Sheffield. It also reports worries about reduced allocations for primary-school training places at postgraduate level.
James Noble-Rogers, executive director of the University Council for the Education of Teachers (Ucet), says this is a worry because of increased pupil numbers in primary schools. This bubble will soon hit secondary schools, he warns, while at the same time, fewer people are likely to turn to teaching because of more opportunities in other sectors. «It is a bit reckless for the government to introduce such a huge change when demographics are coming up and we are coming out of recession,» he says.
While Ucet is not opposed to the principle of School Direct, he says, «the problem we are having is that it has been expanded far too quickly».
Both the Open University and Bath University have recently decided to close their PGCE courses, citing uncertainty caused by the changes as a factor. The concern is that others will follow suit.
Bob Burgess, vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester and chair of the UUK/Guild HE Teacher Education Advisory Group, says that even if universities do not immediately stop teacher training, they may be forced to cut down in particular subject areas or in training teachers for particular age groups and that could eventually «nibble away» at the whole system of teacher training in universities. «The model clearly assumes that universities will be there so that schools can draw on their expertise,» he says. «But you need to have enough money fuelling that.»
Carter says all universities with any form of teacher training are worried about the changes because they make it much harder to plan for future demand. Already, she says, applications to university teacher training are substantially down this year for the first time in decades, which, she suggests, could be the result of over-marketing of School Direct places at the expense of higher education-based courses, combined with applicants being wary of new basic skills tests for trainee teachers.
An added worry is that the School Direct scheme was less successful than universities in filling the places allocated to it last year.
«We cannot afford for that to happen again this year,» says John Howson, managing director of the research company Data for Education and a former government adviser on teacher supply. «If this is going to be a credible training route for large numbers of teachers then schools have to play their part in filling those places.»
Since there has as yet been no evaluation of the School Direct scheme and little data on its effect on teacher-training numbers, he suggests it is being expanded too rapidly.
This means, says Burgess, «there is a risk to the future training of teachers, there is a risk in terms of schools having a supply of appropriately trained teachers, and I also think there is a risk to the way teachers are trained. There needs to be a place for universities in that training because universities bestow, in any qualification, a concept of professionalism».
But an education department spokesperson says: «School Direct is a response to what schools had said they want – a greater role in selecting and recruiting trainees with the potential to be outstanding teachers. The programme is only in its second full year of operating and it is already proving very popular, allowing heads to pick and choose the very brightest graduates and actually raise teaching standards.»
He says that last year, three candidates applied for every School Direct place, compared with 1.8 applicants per place in universities; requests from schools for School Direct places have gone up from 9,600 to 17,700 in the past year and 99% of the overall target for postgraduate places through schools and universities were filled.