Universities shouldn’t see schools as competitors for teacher training funding

First class teaching. Schoolroom via Monkey Business Image/Shutterstock

The coalition is ploughing ahead with its plan to give schools more control of training new teachers. A recent announcement of government-funded places on teacher training courses for the next academic year gave a 15% boost for the School Direct programme, through which teachers are trained on the job. At the same time, universities will face a 3.7% reduction in funded places on more traditional training routes such as the Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE).

Now research published by Universities UK sets out in starker terms what the impact of this shift has been on universities – a 23% drop in teacher training places allocated to universities between the 2012-13 and 2015-16 academic years. It also warns of issues around teacher shortages in some subjects – particularly as School Direct has faced more challenges in recruiting teachers for science, engineering, maths and technology (STEM) subjects.

These figures come at a time when the role of universities in teacher training is already under scrutiny by the Carter Review of initial teacher training. Some universities, including the University of Bath and the Open University, have pulled out of postgraduate teacher training already, followed most recently by Anglia Ruskin University.

Partnerships are key

Yet despite the gloomy picture presented for universities, there are some who have adapted and continue to deliver high-quality teacher education in partnership with schools. Most School Direct providers do work with university partners to deliver teacher training education. And the shift from a university-led model to one built around partnerships with schools can help add value to trainee teachers. Whether the funding for places is allocated to schools or universities becomes irrelevant if all involved recognise the contribution that each party can bring towards achieving a common set of goals.

The reality is that universities are buying-in school provision – such as school placements and access to experienced teachers – to add value to the quality of their teacher education courses. In return, schools are buying-in university expertise to enhance the quality of their own courses. On the University of Warwick’s secondary teacher education programme, whether an applicant is on the core PGCE route or the School Direct route, they receive very similar overall provision. From Warwick’s perspective, the financial arrangements for delivering the two routes are equivalent.

So with partnership at the heart of teacher education, the differences between School Direct and core PGCE are not so apparent. But as the sector commercialises and universities compete for business from schools, they must be careful not to undersell or devalue their contribution to teacher education. The PGCE is still highly valued and the focus on partnership must centre on the high quality expertise that universities can offer.

Expertise still in high demand

Universities also need to be clear about the rationale for being involved with teacher education. It is no longer only about producing high quality teachers, but about having a direct and sustained impact on school improvement and pupil progress in the classroom. This has to be explicit, so that the benefits of partnership are obvious to schools.

Across the country, universities are struggling to identify school placements for trainees on primary PGCE courses, which has led to a shortage. This reluctance to accept new trainees is sometimes attributed to headteachers’ perceptions that they could be a burden on existing school staff. But in most cases trainees can help both schools improve and pupils progress from the outset.

Once the core values of university teacher education courses are aligned to those of schools, partnership is a natural and successful way forward. The University of Durham has a long-standing approach of clustering, where groups of schools work together to train teachers, to achieve a mutually beneficial partnership with schools. It was highlighted by inspectorate Ofsted as good practice.

More recruiting might

In the past, when the School Direct programme has failed to recruit sufficient numbers, universities have stepped in to take on extra trainees to avoid a teacher shortage. The Universities UK report found that in 2013-14, School Direct filled only two-thirds of its allocated places, while universities and other PGCE providers filled 90% of theirs.

This is probably because the marketing prowess of universities to recruit high-quality trainees generally exceeds that available in schools. The government tends to allocate more teacher training places than are needed in the education system. The amount of over-allocation has now risen from 18% in 2014-15, to 32% in 2015-16, highlighting clear concerns that some places may not be filled.

With the Carter Review yet to report its findings, the decline of allocations to universities, and a general election on the way, the role of universities in teacher education in the future is difficult to predict. But in the meantime, they can be proactive in adapting their approach into a way of teaching built on partnerships with schools to ensure they are well-positioned to continue to play an active and crucial role in teacher education.

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