British universities are feeling the effects of the government’s plans, announced last July, to expand the School Direct scheme that funds teacher training through schools and which is resulting in reductions in the number of training places funded through universities.
Already the number of university courses funded to train secondary English teachers has been cut from 54 to 28 while eleven geography courses and nine history courses have lost their funding. And, the position could get worse – the government’s aim is to increase School Direct places from 300 to more than 6,000 from September and reduce university-led provision to 26,000 from 28,000.
Under School Direct, students apply directly to a school or group of schools for teacher training. Universities are then contracted by the schools to provide the academic elements of training. This means that the funding a university receives depends upon how much business it obtains from schools rather than having places directly funded by government.
This system is creating uncertainty for universities. Even Cambridge University, which only recently was celebrating the first ever ‘perfect’ Ofsted report for a teacher-training course, is concerned.
Elaine Wilson, who runs the Cambridge Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) for secondary teachers, confesses that she does not understand the government’s motives for changing a system that has proved so successful. By cutting the number of students it funds directly, she says, government runs the risk of seeing the PGCE programme fold in the future, although there is no immediate risk.
Wilson says that she is not against change but wonders what evidence there is to support the new system. Students on the PGCE course already spend one third of their time in local schools. Cambridge is itself involved with the School Direct scheme but has only been able to fill 10 of 20 places allocated. There is also a complication for students in that they not only have to apply to the school but also have to complete Cambridge’s admissions procedures.
Voicing similar concerns. Samantha Twiselton, Dean of the University of Cumbria’s Faculty of Education, has no issues with the philosophy of training teachers in schools but says that, although Cumbria has been allocated 315 School Direct places, it is only budgeting for 200 to be filled because the recruitment process is untested. There was also a risk that too few teachers could be trained in the future because there would be less government control.
Other university teacher educators echo these sentiments. They say that the system makes cash flow more unpredictable and subject to fluctuation because schools’ needs will vary. Also, universities will probably have to wait until the school year starts to be certain of student numbers.
Professor Peter Tymms, Head of the School of Education at Durham University which currently has an ‘outstanding’ verdict from Ofsted, has said that losing the rating would leave the school in serious trouble. Other countries, he says, cannot believe that England wants to downgrade the role of universities in teacher education.
For his part, Oxford University’s Professor John Howson is concerned about the primary education sector. He points out that, by the end of the decade, the sector will need several thousand more teachers to cope with an expected pupil increase of 800,000. He doubts that primary schools will be able to meet this need on their own.
The government has added to the concerns by announcing that only those providers that receive ‘outstanding’ verdicts from Ofsted will be guaranteed any funding for teacher training in the future. It also raised the ire of university providers when Sir Michael Wilshaw, chief inspector of schools in England who is already under fire for negative comments he has made about the quality of schools, said that under Ofsted’s new inspection regime a greater proportion of school-based training was rated as ‘outstanding’ than university-based training. Describing the remark as ‘overtly political’, the Universities’ Council for the Education of teachers pointed out that the evidence base was too small as only four out of 73 universities with teacher training programmes were included in the verdicts.
Defending the government’s position, a Department of Education spokesperson has said that schools asked for more control over teacher training so that they could take charge of their own profession and better serve the needs of their pupils. The Schools Direct scheme is already proving popular, with schools reporting strong competition for places. School Direct does not mean the end of the important role played by higher education institutions. Rather, by creating strong partnerships with schools, they have the chance to increase their initial teacher training places.
The government’s confidence, however, may be misplaced. With September just a few months away, it is rumoured that, so far, offers have been made to students for only 10% of the available School Direct places, which is adding to the uncertainty. Clearly, these doubts will need to be resolved if this new system is to become a credible alternative to the traditional university route to a career in teaching.
- Alison Jones