When Michael Gove and Nick Gibb first entered their offices on the seventh floor in Sanctuary Buildings in 2010, they were intent on instigating a revolutionary change in the way that student teachers were recruited and trained. At the top of their agenda was an attempt to address perceived issues about the quality of people recruited to initial teacher education (ITE) programmes, with an initial pre-general-election announcement that anyone with a third-class degree would be banned from training, later modified through a system of bursaries targeted towards those with higher class degrees, with little or no support for those with thirds and, in many cases, lower seconds. No account was taken of the lack of any evidence to support a link between degree classification and teacher quality, or of the fact that a modest degree can, depending on the person’s background, be a much better predictor of ability than a first-class honours degree. At the same time as this was happening, Michael Gove changed the rules relating to skills tests in literacy and numeracy. Whereas previously the tests had to be successfully completed in course, they became a pre-ITE entry requirement, with applicants only allowed three attempts to pass the tests before being ‘locked-out’ of the applications system for at least two years.
‘No account was taken of the lack of any evidence to support a link between degree classification and teacher quality.’
The focus on so called ‘high quality’ applicants was reflected in other ways. Performance profiles – which pre-dated 2010, reported on keys statistics relating to ITE providers, and were inevitably used for ranking purposes – identified the proportion of entrants with first-class degrees and 2:1s. When inspecting ITE providers, Ofsted look closely at the quality of trainees recruited, and the rigour of the recruitment and selection process is still a key feature in Ofsted inspections.
And then in early 2018 the rhetoric from government suddenly changed – prompted, of course, by the worsening teacher supply crisis and the government’s failure to meet its ITE recruitment targets for six years in a row. Instead of pressing the sector to ‘raise the bar’, providers were castigated for being too fussy about who they recruited, and recruiting student teachers not on the basis of their post-training potential but on how ‘oven-ready’ to teach they already were. Some providers with apparently high levels of rejection who were contacted by the Department for Education (DfE) had been given the third-degree about why so many potentially good teachers were being turned away, and a number of school-centred initial teacher training providers (SCITTs) and higher education institutions (HEIs) were invited to discuss the issue with Nick Gibb. The Universities’ Council for the Education of Teachers, the National Association of School-Based Teacher Trainers and others did, of course, point out to the DfE that accredited providers have always recruited people on the basis of their post-training potential, and if anything it was a number of headteachers holding School Direct places that had previously looked only at the extent to which someone was already ready to teach. Others pointed out that HEIs in particular would have been better equipped to increase recruitment had their capacity not been so significantly diminished by the mass transfer of places to School Direct at the start of Michael Gove’s reforms – something that ironically led to a large number of ITE places being left unfilled, and hordes of potentially great teachers being lost to schools forever. Other constraints related to limited capacity within partner schools to accept student teachers.
At the same time as Nick Gibb’s exhortation to ITE providers to stop being so fussy, the government’s requirements for ITE were changed so that providers would have to demonstrate the measures they take to maximise recruitment – not realising that providers already had plenty of incentive to recruit as many suitable applicants as possible. While in the past Ofsted often challenged providers to justify why marginal candidates had been recruited (and some providers have claimed to have dropped inspection grades as a result), we can now expect inspectors to challenge providers to justify why such candidates have not been recruited. This not-so-subtle change will make comparisons between inspections grades awarded before and after that change difficult to make. Even more significantly, however, is the new requirement that applicants may not be rejected because they lack school experience. This may prove problematic. Head teachers and ITE providers inevitably like to see some evidence of an applicant’s commitment to, and understanding of, teaching before offering them a place. Experience suggests that those without such experience often do not make the grade. While Ofsted will still expect ITE providers to demonstrate high completion and employment rates, the new requirement could push them into recruiting candidates who will depress their completion and employment scores. Which directive should ITE providers prioritise?
And then we have changes to the skills tests. The ‘three strikes and you’re out’ rule has been removed, and applicants will be allowed unlimited attempts to take the tests. This is welcome. But why stop there? If providers should recruit people on the basis of post-training potential, why not allow them to develop the literacy and numeracy skills of student teachers while they are on the course? That would be consistent with the new rhetoric. Not only would it increase recruitment, it would release some £15 million of public money that could be better spent.