How can we improve Initial Teacher Training?



Forge a new, school-led professionalism

and bridge the gap between research and practice. 

In 1818, Thomas Telford, an engineer who’d designed over 30 bridges and canals, founded the Institution of Civil Engineers. By 1828, it had earned a Royal Charter. In 1968, some 150 years later, a new town in Shropshire was named after him. When it came in 1990 to naming the first City Technology College, Thomas Telford was the obvious choice.


Today, Thomas Telford School is consistently among the top performing comprehensive schools in the country, with 99% GCSE passes including English and Maths and 90% of sixth form leavers going on to University. It is also at the vanguard of a new movement in English education. The Thomas Telford-led initial teacher training (ITT) programme in 2012 took 150 trainees, and headteacher Sir Kevin Satchwell plans to increase that to 500 within 5 years. The reinvention of ITT is beginning here.

I trained as a teacher in my PGCE year in 2011, so the 2012-13 NQT year put me on the cusp between two sets of teaching standards. In my PGCE year, there were 33 standards arbitrarily categorised into attributes, knowledge & understanding and skills, ranging from ‘health and well-being’ to ‘diversity’ to ‘frameworks’ that I had to evidence across 9 categories, ticking (and proving I could tick) over 300 little boxes. It felt like micro-prescriptive bureaucracy gone mad, but didn’t help improve my teaching one bit. In my NQT year, these were simplified and streamlined into just 8 standards focused on behaviour, planning, assessment and subject knowledge. It was a total relief for me, and thousands of teachers nationally, to be able to focus on these priorities. Dame Sally Coates, headteacher of Burlington Danes Academy, led an independent review group to this refreshing simplification, saving me and other NQTs countless hours agonising over crazy criteria.


 Leaders of schools like Thomas Telford and Burlington Danes are leading the school system to improve its initial teacher training, which is the story I want to tell in this blogpost: in my view, for all the heated debate over structures, it is a culture change we need most: a new, school-led professionalism can improve teacher training.

The Past: Politicisation

There’s certainly no shortage of complaints about politicians exerting undue influence and ideological interference. Relentless government intrusion into education over several decades has undermined and compromised teachers’ professional autonomy”, says Deborah Lawson, General Secretary of teachers’ union Voice. Comparing professions, expert John Armstrong says: ‘The teaching profession has suffered successive political agendas: changing ideologies, passing fads, lack of evidence-based policies, teachers feeling ignored and under-valued, endless bureaucratic impositions and constraints – the list is long and well documented, with collateral damage to teachers’ morale and effectiveness very apparent.’ Dr Mary Bousted of ATL echoes this: “The current government and its predecessors have, for the past forty years, driven a constant revolution in education policy. Each succeeding administration, keen to make its mark and widen its scope of influence has introduced legislation to control the education system. We are now at the end of the road of this approach”.

 A case in point was the General Teaching Council for England (GTC), imposed on teachers via the Teaching and Higher Education Act of 1998. Its function was to regulate the profession. It failed to do so, with any noticeable effect. The GTC closed in March 2012. “The lesson to be learnt from the GTC’s fate is that imposing a professional body on teachers is doomed to fail,” says John Bangs, former Head of Education of the National Union of Teachers.

However, as another prominent union leader, Russell Hobby, General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, points out, ‘Professionalism is like trust. Trust cannot be asserted; it is earned by being trustworthy. Similarly, professionalism isn’t a claim; it is earned by being professional. Politicians abhor a vacuum. If we leave a vacuum – by not addressing the difficult questions, for example – they will fill it for us’. Or, as Gerard Kelly, Editor of the Times Education Supplement warns: ‘If teachers do not own their profession, then others with more conflicted intentions surely will’.

The Present: The New Professionalism

Meanwhile, the tide on initial teacher training is turning. In 2009, 80% of 35,000 new teachers trained with Universities. In 2011, the first 100 teaching schools delivered over 10,000 ITT places, nearly 30%. By 2015, up to 50% of teacher training will be school-led by a network of 500 teaching school alliances.

As the former Chief Inspector of Ofsted from 2006-2011 Christine Gilbert says: ‘The school system in England is currently experiencing the most significant period of change for a generation. Teachers themselves have to be at the centre of a self-improving system. They have to own it and drive it. The evidence I have seen up and down the country, from my visits to schools and my discussions with leaders and teachers, persuades me that we have already reached a tipping point in favour of schools themselves as the primary drivers of systemic improvement. There is no turning back from that’.

As Charlie Taylor, the CEO of the National College for Teaching and Leadership says, ‘It’s an exciting time for teacher training – things are changing, and for the better. The very best schools are now at the centre of training and developing the next generation of teachers. The people who know how best to raise standards in our schools are outstanding leaders and teachers – not officials in Whitehall. Our best schools are already well on their way to leading the system. Many of our teachers are making the most of their freedoms and are revolutionising the way they deliver initial teacher training. The best people to teach teachers are teachers. School-led systems put schools, school leaders and teachers firmly in the driving seat. The next three years are going to be some of the most exciting in the history of education. A genuine movement towards a school-led system in which the best schools are in control of the future. The antidote to cynicism, and tiredness, the antidote to central control, the antidote to top down imposition. Freedom to do things differently and individually’.

With 360 of 500 planned teaching schools set up, the early signs are that this works. The research evidence from a decade of evaluating London Challenge suggests that school-to-school partnerships led by headteachers succeed. New figures published by Ofsted reveal that school-led partnerships are leading the way in improving the quality of teacher training. And the OECD says that a teaching profession that assumes a high level of responsibility can attract some of the best graduates into a teaching career.

But perhaps we would be wise to heed the warnings of union leaders like Brian Lightman of ASCL: ‘in an increasingly fragmented and autonomous education system, there is a risk that wide variations in the quality of provision can develop without some kind of coherent framework of professional standards and expectations.’


The Future: A School-led System

How could teachers galvanise this vanguard movement into enduring coherence? One idea, brokered by the Prince’s Trust Institute, is for a Royal College of Teaching.

When I was growing up, I saw the initials F.R.C.S. after my dad’s name, and I never knew what they meant until recently: Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. As my dad’s a doctor, and I’m a teacher, and as many of my friends have recently qualified as doctors or teachers, I always find comparisons between the medical and professions interesting. Both perform vital societal roles; both have long history and traditions; both are predominantly publically funded; both require postgraduate qualifications; and practice in both is an art, a science and a craft to be continually honed. But medicine has earned higher prestige through autonomous gatekeeping and independent standard-setting. One fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons explains:

“RCS is independent, authoritative, innovative and standard-setting. It provides UK surgery with a rudder through constantly changing political and managerial cross-currents. Pre-eminent among the advantages are political independence, lack of any trade union interests, ownership by its members, almost all of whom are practising surgeons working full time in the NHS, and a sharp and constantly adjusting focus on setting and advancing national training standards though examinations and for the provision of education to prepare trainees for the success in these examinations, which is needed for specialisation and promotion. Membership attrition is close to zero”. 


It is not only medicine, though, that has achieved this status; accountancy, law, architecture and engineering have too. Thomas Telford registered a Royal College of Engineering for standard-setting and sharing best practice from 1818; teaching is nearly two centuries behind. But it is now catching up.


The numbers and profile of those signed up in principle to the idea of a Royal College of Teaching are impressive: Union leaders Christine Blower (NUT), Chris Keates (NASUWT), Dr Mary Bousted (ATL), Deborah Lawson (Voice), Russell Hobby (NAHT), Brian Lightman (ASCL) and John Roberts (Edapt); AQA CEO Andrew Hall, Teach First Executive Director James Westhead, Teaching Leaders CEO James Toop and Teacher Development Trust CEO David Weston. David Weston is hosting an independent consultation here if you want to share your views. It is, as the education select committee, DfE and government have said, over to teachers to make this happen: ‘to be successful, the impetus must come from the profession itself.’

Lord Andrew Adonis would go even further in radically reinventing ITT. He recommends a National Teaching Trust akin to the BBC, to independently commission only the best Universities and schools to undertake training, with a national recruitment process with high admissions standards: ‘It is essential that it is seen as a national, not a government endeavor, and that it is not politicised.’

But for me, it is not so much the structures of ITT that need to change, but the content; the ideas rather than the institutions. I will be exploring this more fully next week when reviewing Daisy Christodoulou’s new book on the ineffective ideas that underpin education but undermine teaching in England. For now, there are three central things about the content of Initial Teacher Training that I’d like to see improve:

1. Behaviour

As Tom Bennett said in a speech at the TDT on how to improve teaching quality, disruptive behaviour is the elephant in the room. Unless teachers are equipped by teacher training to tackle tough behaviour effectively, their classes cannot learn.

2. Subject pedagogy

In my conversations with hundreds of teachers nationally, I’ve learned that ITT is not equipping teachers with rigorous subject pedagogical knowledge of the key content, optimal sequence of essential concepts, common pupil misconceptions and sufficient practice in understandable explanations and effective instruction. This is partly why today I’ve published a book on How To Start Teaching English. The reason underlying this is the gap between evidence-based research and most initial teacher training I’ve heard of undertaken by teachers.

3. The research-practice gap

As David Weston points out, the ‘sharp separation of research and practice has left teachers isolated from the research evidence that could inform them’. ITT is not based on our cutting-edge understanding of learning from cognitive science, or based on statistically evaluated practices that impact on pupil progress such as direct instruction, the core knowledge curriculum, or mastery assessment; none feature in the ITT experienced by the hundreds of teachers I talk to. This makes many teachers feel a great deal of anger, as this anecdote from Daisy Christodoulou, now CEO of The Curriculum Centre, reveals:

‘I have never worked so hard in my life as in my first year teaching, and I doubt I ever will again. After I’d been teaching for three years, I took a year out to do further study. I was shocked to stumble across an entire field of educational and scientific research which completely disproved so many of the theories I’d been taught when training and teaching. I wasn’t just shocked; I was angry. I felt as though I’d been led up the garden path. I had been working furiously for three years, teaching hundreds of lessons, and a whole lot of information which would have made my life a whole lot easier and would have helped my pupils immeasurably had just never been introduced to me. Worse, ideas which had absolutely no evidence backing them up had been presented to me as unquestionable axioms’. This is exactly the same anger John Hattie describes when he informs his trainees of evidence-based practice.

It is to the ineffective ideas underpinning education in England that I turn next, courtesy of Daisy Christodoulou and her new book out on the 18th June, Seven Myths in Education.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to How can we improve Initial Teacher Training?

  1. Elaine Wilson says:

    Joe Where does this data come from?
    ‘Meanwhile, the tide on initial teacher training is turning. In 2009, 80% of 35,000 new teachers trained with Universities. In 2011, the first 100 teaching schools delivered over 10,000 ITT places, nearly 30%. By 2015, up to 50% of teacher training will be school-led by a network of 500 teaching school alliances’.
    Do you have a reference for this data? It does not quite ring true, but I could be wrong.

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  12. David Macfarlane says:

    I find this blog of yours from nearly 3 years ago, on the future of ITT being best served as school led still extremely relevant today, when I was looking at starting a new career in primary school I was informed that the university route would be the best option for me. I have just finished my 2nd school based training and after completing it the gap between theory and practice is still very wide and is in need of being brought closer together as stated by The Carter Review in 2015. In my experience of ITT there is still more to be done.

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