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Spaces for activism in early years initial teacher education in England

Katherine Evans, Lecturer in Education (Early Childhood Studies) at University of Plymouth

Practices of initial teacher education (ITE) are inevitably impacted by a range of influential discourses, including those endorsed by central government and those emerging from the values, principles and experiences of teacher educators. Publication of the Initial Teacher Training Market Review (DfE, 2021) and the Core Content Framework (CCF) (DfE, 2019) have been a catalyst for significant change in the experience offered to prospective teachers in England. The influence of these official discourses has generated strong critique focusing on the restrictive nature of the cited evidence base and the potential limitations of a government-mandated ‘curriculum’ for ITE (Russell Group, 2021). There is palpable apprehension about the technical and prescriptive nature of the ‘minimum entitlement’ contained within the CCF (Brooks, 2021).

The Department for Education (DfE) states that the CCF does not set out a full curriculum for trainee teachers, thereby placing the responsibility on ITE providers to design curricula appropriate to the age range that trainees will be teaching (DfE, 2019, p. 4). There is, however, some tension and contradiction around this statement as it is tempered with the expectation that providers teach the full entitlement of the CCF and use this to structure their programmes. The message seems to be that there is some freedom and room for interpretation, but only within the dominant structures prescribed.

‘The message seems to be that there is some freedom and room for interpretation, but only within the dominant structures prescribed.’

As an early years teacher educator, I find this concerning. While the DfE considers the CCF to be ‘informed by the best available educational research’ (DfE, 2019, p. 10), there is a conspicuous lack of evidence relating to the learning of very young children. As a result of this, the nuances and subtleties that underpin teaching in the early years are lost, resulting in a framework which is narrow, oversimplified and partial (Turvey et al., 2019). The treatment of early reading is a key example of this discourse restricting the development of early years teachers. Systematic synthetic phonics is promoted as a teaching strategy (Newman, 2022) at the exclusion of other approaches, something that has the potential to significantly narrow the repertoire (Brooks, 2021) of pedagogical knowledge that early career teachers have to draw on in their practice.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of these recent developments is the lack of space to critique the CCF. Compliance with the model of pedagogy advocated within the framework is a core feature of the current reaccreditation process for providers of ITE in England. A number of high-profile providers have reacted strongly against this and have withdrawn their programmes from the market, refusing to bend to principles they actively disagree with. Are these, however, the only options: subscribe to a potentially damaging discourse or withdraw from the market all together? Just as Archer (2020) reports stories of subversion and resistance to dominant policy narratives within early childhood education and care, there is work to be done within early years ITE to find spaces for activism, to work within the structures and find opportunities for resistance.

The CCF itself states that trainee teachers should learn how to engage critically with research, using evidence to critique practice (DfE, 2019, p. 29). For those following an early years pathway, surely this includes critiquing the dominance of the CCF itself and considering where this prescribed ‘minimum requirement’ is not appropriate for the context of early years teaching and learning. As an early years teacher educator, I certainly feel a responsibility to advocate for the needs of our future specialist teachers and to actively critique the dominance of discourses that have the potential to restrict the development of their unique professional identity.


Archer, N. (2020, August 6). Activism, autonomy and identities: Stories from early childhood educators. BERA Blog.

Brooks, C. (2021, September 2). The Core Content Framework and the fallacy of a teacher training ‘curriculum’. Institute of Education Blog.

Department for Education [DfE]. (2019). ITT Core Content Framework.

Department for Education [DfE]. (2021). Initial teacher training (ITT) market review report.

Newman, S. (2022). Teacher education under attack. Journal of Education for Teaching, 48(1), 1–6.

Russell Group. (2021). Initial teacher training (ITT) market review: Russell Group response

Turvey, K., Ellis, V., Watson, A., Slocombe, M., Cutnick, P., Cowley, S, Harrison, C., & Frederick, K. (2019, December 9). Total recall? The ITE content framework, research and teachers’ understandings of learning. BERA Blog.