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Rose-tinted glasses and varifocals: A reflective lens on the development of initial teacher training curricula

Lisa Murtagh, Reader of Education and Head of MiE at University of Manchester

In 2023 I attended the annual BERA Conference, and was particularly struck by Elizabeth Chapman Hoult and colleagues’ workshop, ‘Revisioning teacher education within higher education: An invitation to engage in a collaborative metaphorical exploration in the light of the Market Review of Initial Teacher Education in England’.

Stimulated by discussions I had with participants during the workshop, this blog post looks at the development of initial teacher training (ITT) curricula in England from 1998–2019. It notes that prescriptive curricula content and pedagogies are not essentially novel practices in ITT. The perception that our current ITT context is unprecedented regarding curricula and pedagogical prescription has caused me to reflect on my own experiences as a pre-service teacher educator, and helped me to realise that I perhaps had rose-tinted views of the past. I fear there is a danger that as teacher educators we sometimes do not adjust our view, reflect and see the bigger picture.

During the workshop, a participant commented that I had been a mathematics lecturer on her pre-service training programme some 16 years ago. I recalled that during this time our ITT programme was driven by the content of Circular 4/98 (DfEE, 1998) which introduced centrally mandated ITT curricula and standards for the award of Qualified Teacher Status (QTS). The Circular sought to ‘equip all new teachers with the knowledge, understanding and skills needed to play their part in raising pupil performance across the education system’ (p.3). It included detailed annexes which constituted the ITT curricula and specified the essential core knowledge, understanding and skills which all trainees were to be taught. The level of curricula content was very prescriptive. For example, in relation to Primary Mathematics education (pupils aged 7–11) it stated:

‘[In mathematics, trainees] must be taught…

  1. the structure of number e.g. order and size;
  2. the conceptual links between different aspects of number e.g. place value, zero, fractions, powers of ten, and how the relationship between these provides a conceptual framework for decimals;
  3. the nature of the four operations and the relationships between them e.g. subtraction as the inverse operation of addition; multiplication as repeated addition; if ab = c (and a ≠ 0) then c ÷ a = b’ (DfE, 1998, p.52, emphasis in original).

Coupled with this prescriptive content, providers of Primary ITT saw themselves being trained by consultants to ‘deliver’ the National Literacy and National Numeracy strategies to their trainees, using detailed curriculum materials and resources maintained in the dubiously titled ‘Lunchboxes’. The implications for the Primary phase of ITT were unparalleled at the time, with trainee teachers required to be taught specific literacy and numeracy curricula in particular ways. As I pondered on this experience, I realised that, as a pre-service teacher educator, I had been compliant in ‘delivering’ prescriptive curricula with prescriptive methods to my trainees, and I had adhered to these without question. I had not worn my metaphorical varifocals to vary my view of the bigger picture. I was trapped wearing my rose-tinted glasses as a new and naïve member of the ITT community.

‘I realised that, as a pre-service teacher educator, I had been compliant in “delivering” prescriptive curricula with prescriptive methods to my trainees, and I had adhered to these without question.’

In June 2007, the revised ‘Framework of Professional Standards for Teachers’ was introduced and notably, the detailed annexes were removed. On reflection, I view the period from 2007 as ‘a little rosy’. As ITT providers we could exercise some level of autonomy over our provision with regard to curriculum content.

Fast forward to 2019 and the introduction of the ITT Core Content Framework (CCF). Wearing my varifocals, I note that while the notion of a mandated curriculum is not novel, the extent of prescription certainly is. We currently find ourselves as providers of ITT navigating the demands of compliance to a CCF riddled with authorised curriculum content and pedagogies and even authorised, and seemingly unquestionable, ‘evidence-based’ research. Far from rosy?

While I support the desire for consistency of excellent standards, I am concerned about homogeneous approaches to education. For pre-service teacher education in particular, I fear this will undermine fundamental aspects of providers’ high-quality teacher training provision. I urge all ITT communities to sport their varifocals, adjust their focus and question, rather than blindly accept, that what is placed before them is drawn from the ‘best available evidence’.


Department for Education and Employment [DfEE]. (1998). Teaching: High status, high standards.