Teachers' professional development and initial teacher education

As we outlined in Chapter 2, the level of parental interaction during the pandemic has emphasised the need for schools to reconsider how parental engagement is managed post-lockdown. Likewise, the emergent digital technologies have revealed the need to build digital literacy and develop accompanying pedagogies profession-wide, a challenge that we explore further in Chapter 10. Both have an impact on how we train, recruit, develop and retain teachers. Taken together, both emphasise the importance of access to high-quality teacher education and continuing professional development opportunities, and the equivalent for the wider school workforce, especially when a post-lockdown recession might mean a surge of interest in joining the profession and when those joining will bring new skill sets, especially in the digital sphere, a point not lost on those in the teacher education community:

I think there is a degree to which we need to recognise the expertise that they [newly qualified teachers] are now bringing into schools because they, themselves, have been online learners. And now they are going to be online teachers. That’s some incredible resource actually - that schools don’t have in the same way [and] that established teachers don’t have.

(Vic Crooks, assistant professor in history education, University of Nottingham, focus group - teacher education, 27 July 2020)

Across the UK the long-standing Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) spans an academic year with, usually, a couple of extended periods of teaching practice of several weeks duration, one earlier in the course and one towards the close of the year. The practical difficulties of delivering such a programme with schools partially closed are obvious but, as with others in the schooling arena, inventiveness and creativity were the order of the day:

We put in place quite quickly ... an online system of delivery for professional development and for keeping [in] touch with students on a group, as well as a one to one, basis. [First] we had whole groups, cohort sessions, then we had smaller sessions and then we added one-to-one ... and ... very quickly, early on, we said PGCE secondary students will not be in schools. We didn’t wait for the government or the schools to make those decisions, [although] we did consult with the schools.

(Kim Cowie, lecturer in education, University of Newcastle focus group - teacher education, 27 July 2020)

But, this ability to embrace the digital risks underplaying the qualities of ‘in-the-room’ teaching and teacher development:

I think there are real dangers in the ways that institutions have shown how quickly it’s possible to say it’s okay, we’ve set up alternative [online] tasks, alternative kinds of assessment, alternative ways of communicating. We can develop this expertise very quickly ... [but]... I think there’s a real danger of downplaying, the expert knowledge and experience of teacher educators in knowing how teachers learn ... there’s a real danger in sending messages that we can ... you know, ... put it all online.

(Caroline Daly, professor of teacher education, University College London, focus group - teacher education, 27 July 2020)

Building on this theme that we can’t ‘put it all online’, Daly continues:

We need time to work with teachers who are still learning - whether they’re student teachers, employment-route teachers, trainee teachers - we need time for them to spend with experts [from] a range of sources [and] from a range of perspectives, doing those things that are really complicated, that are highly contingent, that are ‘in the moment', that enact things around learning that preserve the importance of things like physicality, dramatisation, physical literacy, all kinds of social and verbal interactions that are actually incredibly hard to replicate online.

Arguably, this is not just about teacher training. It’s about teaching itself and the nature of schools as social spaces. It’s about, as Graeme Tiffany puts it in one of our other focus groups, presence:

I go back to this central point for young people: presence, and what Rhydian Brooke calls, ‘the miracle of presence’, is so important for them. And if you ask them what they miss they’ll tell you clearly: ‘I miss my friends. I miss my friends and I miss being able to engage with my teachers in a kind of a conversational, questioning kind of way’.

(Graeme Tiffany, detached youth worker, University of London, focus group - secondary education, 22 July 2020)

And teachers and trainee teachers likewise. This is not to say that there are not benefits that the socially distanced, remotely mentored student teachers of 2020 have gained, but that they have had one kind of preparation, and not another:

Some of [the lockdown-trainees] have gained brilliant experience in, in kind of medium- and long-term planning, which they wouldn’t necessarily have had ... Some of them were absolutely fantastic and took on whole schemes of learning and have spent vast amounts of time doing planning in a way that they wouldn’t necessarily have had the time or the flexibility to do in a standard year. So, I think there have been some real benefits ... [but] ... I’ve spoken to several of them and they are, they’re worried about standing up in front of the classroom. They know they can do it. They’ve got reams of paperwork and files and all sorts of wonderful reports telling them that they’re doing it, and that they have had enough training and we’ve got confidence in them, but actually having not stood up in front of the class since March ... [it’s] a terrifying thought. And I think experienced teachers are kind of having a little bit of a, you know, an extension of, of the kind of ‘summer holiday blues’ ... when you kind of think [come September], can I do this again? I think that’s massively extended in these trainees.

(Sophie Igo, assistant head and initial teacher training lead, Chesterton Community College, Cambridge, focus group - teacher education, 27 July 2020)

Whatever the practical difficulties, though, that lockdown has posed to those in initial teacher education, it has been as insightful to this community of educational professionals as it has been to those elsewhere in the educational landscape:

I think it’s made us understand how complex initial teacher education is these days; so many different routes, so many different phases, so many different age profiles on our programmes, so many different [types of] school and setting that we’re actually working with. And it makes you reflect, I think, on the nature of your partnerships and how strong they are and the different kinds of trainees that you’ve got.

(David Kerr, head of initial teacher training, fellowship and engagement, University of Reading, focus group - teacher education, 27 July 2020)

Kerr, in common with many at the chalkface, feels that there might be a ‘reset’ opportunity in all of this - one that might enable reframed teacher education programmes to capture this complexity - but worries, as early as July 2020, that teacher education providers are, already, being guided to revert to pre-lockdown norms:

The question is whether [the] DfE [Department for Education], Ofsted and others [will] allow us to be more flexible in the way we plan our programmes, going forward, because there’s a danger that [after lockdown], we just go back [to pre-lockdown practice] because we’re forced [to do so] by things like the ITT [Initial Teacher Training] Core Content Framework and [the Ofsted] inspection framework. We all have these great ideas now about what we’d like to do - online mentoring, online meetings - but there’s a danger that we’ll be forced back to the ... usual pattern just because of the way that we’re actually inspected and governed [by] the forces in the centre.

And Professor Rachel Lofthouse, who had enabled us to pull the teacher education focus group together, concurs:

We’ve been forced, as have schools, to be extraordinarily adept at being flexible, adaptable and agile - you know, on an almost daily basis having to come up and resolve issues. But ... when we’ve gone back, for example, from UCET [Universities’ Council for the Education of Teachers] to the DfE and asked them to be a bit more flexible and agile around the juggernaut of policies that are coming, we’ve essentially met [with] what I see, from my position, [as] a bit of a brick wall.

(Rachel Lofthouse, professor of teacher education, Carnegie School of Education, Leeds Beckett University, focus group - teacher education, 27 July 2020)

For Kerr, the answer lies in stronger partnerships with both schools and those engaged in system leadership and governance, but he remains concerned that this opportunity might be slipping away:

There’s a real need to have a good dialogue with our school partners, so that it’s a real partnership, but also with DfE and Ofsted, so that we don’t just capture the learning - they also capture the learning ... there’s been a kind of window of opportunity here. It’s a question of whether we can grasp it and take it forward.

(David Kerr, head of initial teacher training, fellowship and engagement, University of Reading, focus group - teacher education, 27 July 2020)

Fundamentally, these comments raise questions about the kind of places we want schools to be - and the tasks, as a society, we need them to fulfil - and the kind of profession we want teaching to evolve into, not simply in the stressed months of an inevitably unevenly easing lockdown, but in the longer term. In this regard, one key theme shone through in our focus group and one-to-one research discussions, which was raised by Steve Chalke in the late-lockdown tweet cited in our Preface; namely, that of resetting our education system, rather than merely restarting it.

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