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Rachel Hewitt warns that reforms to university teacher training could prove unsustainable

What will happen to teacher training in universities under Rishi Sunak’s government? MillionPlus has engaged extensively with the review of teacher training launched in early 2020, working in concert with vice-chancellors and its Deans of Education Network, to offer feedback and, where needed, constructive criticism.

While existing processes in initial teacher training (ITT) demonstrate robust quality assurance, a drive for continuous improvement is central to what universities do, so, throughout, we have offered productive advice about how best to focus the review, with the practical needs of trainees, schools and therefore pupils firmly in mind.

However, in recent weeks, our concerns about the accreditation process and its design have come to fruition. While we welcomed the fact that many universities, including almost 80 per cent of MillionPlus members, received accreditation, we were concerned to see that re-accreditation was refused to a number of well-established and trusted university ITT providers, across all mission groups, even though they had been judged Good or Outstanding by Ofsted. This will have a significant impact on schools and on teacher supply.

Challenging times

Schools and universities have had an incredibly challenging time in recent years, with the pandemic causing fundamental changes in ways of operating and significant disruption. Now, as the cost-of-living crisis bites, they are under more pressure than ever, both financially and in the way they support their students. In the past few weeks, both the NASUWT teaching union and National Education Union have announced that they will ballot members in schools for strike action over the government’s pay proposals.

Meanwhile, Department for Education data demonstrate the scale of the challenge in teacher shortages. By 19 September, secondary initial teacher training (ITT) courses had recruited just 12,646 applicants this year, compared with the DfE target of 20,945. This, coupled with a 12.4 per cent jump in the number of teachers leaving the profession last year, puts schools in an increasingly challenging environment. In turn, it affects schools’ ability to offer high-quality placements—a critical issue for initial teacher education (ITE).

Accreditation impact

While we support genuine quality assurance and the goal of maintaining high standards, the impact of the accreditation process seems unjustified.

The ITT market review launched just before the pandemic, the impact of which led to a temporary increase in teacher training applications. However, the position has worsened again since the expert panel reported in July 2021.

It is vital for both the teacher supply pipeline and the health and wellbeing of staff across the profession that any changes made are the right ones. Reforms that increase the burden on schools, and potentially deter them from engaging in ITE, would be disastrous for the sector and for the profession.

The decision to refuse re-accreditation to many trusted providers will have knock-on effects on schools, placements and on partnerships that have been built up over many years.

There is a real danger that both close working relationships that universities have developed with schools or school chains in their regions and pathways of ITT provision will be diminished and that existing issues with teacher recruitment will be exacerbated.

Cold spots

Not only do these developments bring a general risk to teacher supply, which is already under significant strain, but they risk extending regional ‘cold spots’ in teacher training, with particular impacts on schools in areas with existing shortages.

Recent analysis by TES showed that some regions could lose up to a third of their teacher trainees after the results of the second and final round of the DfE’s re-accreditation of providers. Local providers are critical to initial teacher training and any loss of provision adds to concerns around sustainability of the teacher workforce.

MillionPlus universities are proud leaders in educating the public sector workforce. In 2020-21, modern universities accounted for 67 per cent of all initial teacher training students in the university sector and 73 per cent of nursing students. This aligns with their core mission of widening access to higher education and with their importance in recruiting local students from a diverse range of backgrounds into higher education and training them to take up these important public sector roles.

Through its Deans of Education Network, it represents 20 providers of initial teacher education, and meets regularly with the DfE to discuss teacher education policy in England and to highlight the crucial role modern universities have in delivering teacher training.

Appeals process

So we are watching carefully what comes next. As I write, we are in the midst of the appeals process. Any providers that are not successful at appeal stage will then have an opportunity to partner with another provider, likely another university, to continue to offer teacher training.

I expect the DfE is hoping that many will chose to go down this partnership route, to reduce the impact on future teacher supply and on regions. But partnership will have financial, practical, legal and reputational risks, which universities will need to consider carefully. If many of those refused accreditation choose not to partner, challenges in teacher recruitment and supply may spiral out of control. The regional impact of this would be counter to the government’s own aims of ‘driving up and levelling up education standards’.

The new ministerial team in the DfE must therefore urgently consider the sustainability of these reforms, as well as the real risk to teacher supply and recruitment should cold spots emerge. We will be seeking to work together to tackle the challenges ahead.

Rachel Hewitt is chief executive of MillionPlus