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Another fine mess! The allocation of initial teacher training places for 2016

Ian Menter

In their excoriating analysis of The Blunders of our Governments, the political scientists Anthony King and Ivor Crewe offer twelve case studies, or ‘horror stories’, as they call them, from the past thirty years.  These range from the Millennium Dome through the poll tax to universal tax credits.  The only exemplar of a bungle that relates directly to education provision is that of the Individual Learning Accounts, initiated by John Major’s government in 1996 and finally dropped by New Labour in 2001 after much handwringing and the revelation of significant fraud and mismanagement.

It seems to me that the Department for Education (as it is currently called) has got off relatively lightly in that study. However the recent debacle on the  question of teacher supply comes close to being a subsequent further case for the King and Crewe treatment – it is certainly a major horror story and has key elements of a Blunder.

In its headlong rush to ensure the ‘success’ of School Direct, the approach to Initial Teacher Training (sic) launched by Michael Gove in 2010, the DfE, through its ‘arms-length’ agency, the National College for Teaching and Learning (NCTL), decreed in 2015 that all school-led providers of initial teacher education could recruit trainees in a free-for-all scramble, until such point as the prescribed total recruitment numbers for each subject had been achieved. The effect of this was to bring down the numbers available to higher education-led providers, which were already capped. In other words the previous system whereby each provider – including the ‘core’ provision led by higher education institutions – was allocated a quota which they could recruit over the course of the year was to be replaced by a ‘first come first serve’ system favouring school-led providers.

intending teachers are being bounced around a confused and confusing array of different options

This new approach has created considerable chaos and some apparently unintended consequences. The system has been very difficult for potential teacher trainees to understand – there are now so many different routes of entry into teaching, with different arrangements for each, that rather than being able to make a well-informed rational choice, intending teachers are being bounced around a confused and confusing array of different options. 

The impact on universities which have operated a very careful and considered selection process, involving joint interviews with their partner schools, has also been considerable. The previous emphasis on ensuring the quality of recruits has now been replaced by an emphasis on speed – if you don’t fill your allocation quickly, the numbers will go elsewhere to school-led providers.  There have been almost weekly circulars emanating from the NCTL changing the numbers of places remaining available  or completely closing some subjects. 

Furthermore, anecdotal evidence from universities suggests that the new approach is leading to a demographic skewing of the candidates being offered places. The students who are getting PGCE places are those coming straight from their degree courses with careers office support and are tending to be 21 year olds.  These are the people who are getting their applications in early, at the beginning of the recruitment round.  Where is the equality monitoring to ensure that the profile of teachers is increasingly ethnically diverse, gender balanced and age/experience balanced?  This is reminiscent of the introduction of the ITT skills tests in 1998 which had a similar effect (see Hextall, Mahony and Menter, 2001).

‘overactive’ ministers who push their personal agenda through while ignoring advice from professionals

King and Crewe offer a range of explanatory factors behind government blunders. These include ‘overactive’ ministers who push their personal agenda through while ignoring advice from professionals, a lack of appropriate accountability systems and ‘a deficit of deliberation’.  The teacher supply fiasco seems to qualify at least for these factors, as well as others. 

You can see Marcus Bell, the civil servant responsible for teacher supply, avoiding all of these issues in his presentation at a roundtable organised by the RSA – and you can see a careful unpicking of the problems by Adam Boddison from Warwick University in the same video.

Where is the research basis for changing the system so dramatically and suddenly? What evidence is there that this ‘school-led’ approach will lead to improvements in teaching quality or indeed meet then recruitment needs of schools across England? 



King, A. and Crewe, I. (2013) The blunders of our governments. London: Oneworld

Hextall, I., Mahony, P. and Menter, I. (2001) ‘Just Testing?: an analysis of the implementation of ‘skills tests’ for entry into the teaching profession in England’, Journal of Education for Teaching, 27, 3, 221-239.

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