Teaching teachers: what makes a great teacher?
I have numerous friends who have gone into teaching and what unites them is a belief their teacher education could have been better and should have made them more prepared. They say this whichever training route they took.
So what makes an ideal teacher? And the next question has to be, “How do we teach it?” Traditionally teacher training in the state sector has followed the PGCE or BEd models where students study at university with school placements as part of the course. But in recent years this model has been challenged, as the Government has encouraged new routes into teaching, and we have seen various initiatives including FastTrack, SCITTs (School Centred Initial Teacher Training), School Direct and, probably the most successful, Teach First.
Who is delivering teacher education?
Schools, themselves, have become significant suppliers of teacher education – now outnumbering universities – something not always known outside of teacher training.
HEFCE, the funding council for English universities, has pulled together a register of all organisations funded to deliver higher education. In addition to all the universities, and other public and private institutions, there are also almost 200 schools training teachers through SCITTs and School Direct – that’s more than the number of universities, even if dealing with much smaller student numbers.
This not only emphasises the rapid pace of change, but also raises questions about how potential teaching students might navigate their way through the plethora of providers.
At the recent ResearchEd conference in East London the issue of good teaching took centre stage. A recurrent theme was the ability to use research to inform good practice and support the teacher as a reflective practitioner.
The ability to interrogate evidence is often presented by universities as a key part of their offer in delivering teacher education, but, no doubt, some do it better than others. Core to the idea of a Royal College of Teaching is the emphasis on teaching as a profession. Other professions – such as medicine, law, architecture – are based on a body of knowledge that is both robust and constantly updating. The ability to learn how to learn and instilling the need for high quality ongoing professional development are central to good teacher education.
That, in turn, raises the question about how long it takes to become a teacher. Medics have five years of education, before several years of clinical training – and they’re only dealing with one patient at a time rather than a class of 30 pupils!
It takes time to cultivate a good teacher, and, like a tree, some grow slowly at first and can seem a little weak. You might think they are not thriving and consider replacing them – but wait until the next Spring and see. This is already partly recognised through the additional support for NQTs in their first teaching year, but universities could offer more support to their graduates in this year. There would also be a case for extending this support through the early stages of their career, through both informal networks as well as more formalised routes of additional qualifications.
More than one way
Universities and schools have always worked together to train teachers – that’s not new; fresh ways of doing it are, and there are excellent examples of universities taking the opportunities of recent Government reforms to develop innovative ways to meet the needs of future teachers.
Many are opening free schools, UTCs or sponsoring academies. Leeds Trinity University has partnerships with over 600 local schools; Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln has “enrichment placements” including experiencing school life in Gambia or Norway. Another GuildHE institution, Plymouth College of Art, has opened a free school for the creative arts for children 4-16, sitting alongside the College’s provision of both further and higher education qualifications.
Universities are working with teaching schools and teaching school alliances – the Institute of Education has recently launched their new research and development network for London schools.
Other exciting initiatives include the University Training School model being developed by the universities of Birmingham and Cambridge. These schools will mix educational research with high quality teaching and connect educational research and practitioner reflection.
No going back – a chance to go forward
These reforms have begun to shake-up the teacher education sector and we should not be scared of an opportunity to ask fundamental questions about what the future of teacher education should look like. What skills and knowledge do teachers need and how do we support them to develop these? How long does it take to train to be a teacher? What support should they receive at the beginning and throughout their career?
The Review of Initial Teacher Training, chaired by Andrew Carter, plus a new Secretary of State give us a chance to consider the best ways to shape teacher education. It’s unlikely and undesirable we will return to a single model. Different routes into teaching have their pros and cons, but it is too easy to get hung up on who delivers the training rather than identifying and equipping future teachers with the knowledge, skills and confidence to ensure the best education for the next generation.
Alex Bols is Deputy Chief Executive, GuildHE, formal representative body for small & specialist universities.