The focus of the new Education White Paper (WP) is advertised in the title: “The Importance of Teaching”. Teachers are rightly lauded as the most important single factor in creating a good education. The reforms relate principally to training new teachers, with additional discussion of the constraints and bureaucracy that teachers face. The White Paper calls for shifting the emphasis of teacher training from university-based to school-based training, the argument being that this is where the “craft” of teaching is better learnt, and that this will generate more effective teachers.
We believe that the WP presumes more robust evidence on this issue than actually exists. It is hard to legislate on the best way to train teachers when we are not really sure what makes a good teacher, or what effective teachers do. We need to be realistic in terms of what we know, and also in terms of the wider context around teacher development.
There are a number of prior questions that need more robust answers than they currently have to properly address this policy issue. For example: To what extent are good teachers born or made? What do effective teachers do? What motivates teachers? We discuss new teachers first and then existing teachers.
The two key issues around new teachers are recruitment and training. The research evidence suggests that the recruitment of teachers matters a great deal. This evidence can be used to design the ideal personnel policy, the ideal contract for teachers. The facts are that teachers are very different in effectiveness but that this is hard to spot pre-hire as it does not appear to be well correlated with characteristics such as degree class or subject; and that this level of effectiveness tends not to increase with experience after the first two or three years. The current teacher entry system involves making the sharpest selection before training (to be raised to a good university degree), giving training, but thereafter only mild selection: that is, most people pass their training, and then passing probation (achieving QTS) is relatively straightforward in most schools. The evidence suggests a better policy would be exactly the reverse: a much more open and inclusive approach to who can begin teacher training, coupled with a much tougher probationary policy.
It is hard to give strong advice about a model for teacher training, given only a sketchy idea of how effective teachers operate. But in practical terms, students on teacher training courses already spend about two thirds of their time in school rather than in the university lecture hall; the scope for major gains from further time in school does not seem large. Furthermore, a timely OFSTED report on initial teacher training found more outstanding university-based teacher training courses than outstanding school-based ones. The implications for schools of taking a larger role in teacher training also need some consideration, particularly given the squeeze in resources that is coming.
There are about 400,000 teachers in England, and the turnover is about 20,000 per year. So even if the average effectiveness of new teachers can be significantly improved, this will only have a marginal impact on overall effectiveness for at least a decade. Increasing the effectiveness of existing teachers offers much greater scope for rapid improvements in standards.
The counter-part to focussing initial training on schools is to emphasise and enhance training on the job, continuing professional development (CPD). The picture painted by the economics evidence suggests a model of informal, small-scale, within-school or even within-department groups would work well, with colleagues learning from the most effective teachers. Whilst CPD is discussed at some length in the WP, it has not been the focus of interest and discussion that it should be.
The broader question is why this has to be pushed towards teachers, why there isn’t much of a demand for it from most teachers. Raising the value of being an effective teacher might help fuel this demand. We know that teachers do raise their teaching effort given incentives, and it seems likely that they would also be keener to invest in their own capability to be effective. This incentivisation could be very simple and need not be personal financial gain. It could be simple pride and satisfaction from being top of a list of teachers in the staff room, or additional resources for a project chosen by the teacher, or it could be a pay bonus for the teacher.
The focus on teachers and teacher effectiveness is to be applauded. It is less clear that the right policies have been selected to enhance this.