On July 5th 2021, just as English schools, teacher training providers and universities were packing up after a long hard year navigating Covid-19 and series of ill-managed lockdowns by government, the Department for Education’s (DfE) commissioned review on Initial Teacher Training (ITT) was released. Called a Market Review of Initial Teacher Training (ITT), the Review promised a radical overhall of ITT. These reforms were quickly described as a ‘wrecking ball’ that would put teacher supply at risk. The sector agrees.
There are many good reasons why there has been such a groundswell of opposition. The Review as it stands is burdened by the weight of significant democratic shortfalls around process, and an under-developed understanding of what makes for outstanding teacher education. And if for a moment you doubt the tidal wave of concern – this list will immediately allay them. Open each link and they say the same thing: that this Review is an ideologically driven, ill-conceived, poorly evidenced, and costly proposal that will deliver low quality and a one-size fits all ITT provision. Little wonder that the pressure needle on the ITT barometer has raced around the dial to signal nothing short of a typhoon brewing.
So, what are these democratic deficits, and why do they matter?
Effective policymakers know that if a policy is to have any chance of getting traction on a policy problem, the first thing they need to do is ensure a level of representation on the Expert Advisory Group. After all we live in a democracy. Large swathes of the sector, including many significant providers, simply went under-represented on the Expert Advisory Group. Instead, a small, unrepresentative, group of mostly newer providers of ITT (Ark, Teach First and the Arthur Terry Learning Partnership) were asked to pool their expertise. This is the first democratic deficit.
Effective policymakers will also be attuned to the various shortfalls in accountability which arise when consultation windows are significantly narrowed, or when the consultation period that is chosen effectively limits proper participation. Democracies depend on participation. Halving the consultation period from 12 to 6 weeks, and launching it when schools, providers and universities were on their summer vacation, restricts participation. This is the second democratic deficit. Feel the barometer rising further? I can.
Now for good measure, say that you are consulting and ‘listening’ to the various groups who have been so alarmed at the ITT review recommendations that they have made their consultation documents and concerns public. Repeatedly they are being told by some government officials “in consultation mode” that the sector has deliberately ‘misunderstood’ the report and need to ‘get it right’. Get what right? It appears that ‘getting it right’, in this case, means accepting that what you are reading on the page does not really mean what it says. Now this is surely getting into Alice in Wonderland territory where things aren’t what they seem. What can they mean, we ask in the various meetings (when we thought we knew how to read and write in English?) This is the third democratic deficit, because we are being asked to agree to words that apparently mean something else. We all know Alice’s world: the Mad Hatter, the Red Queen, the March Hare! The needle surges forward as our frustration with what consultation means grows!
Cap it off by denying there is a dissenting wall of opposition in solidarity, and by suggesting, notably on social media platforms rarely themselves troubled by careful consideration of evidence and reality, that it is only one or two institutions having a hissy fit in the corner, and they will come round. This is an old trick; attempt to reduce the opposition to one or two misfits and question their intentions. But this is not the stuff of democracy either and has all the feel of bully-boy tactics that jack up the ITT barometer in no uncertain terms!
Why does it matter? Because as I argued last week, the future of much excellent ITT provision is in the balance and with it the right of a learner to an outstanding teacher. For sure, politics was never meant to be fun, but we are playing with a fundamental human right here. The right to quality education, on the one hand, and the right to a wise not reckless government on the other, whose legitimate right to rule rests with its citizens. Its citizens are speaking. Listening to the groundswell of opposition is surely step one, and charting a path forward that is democratic, inclusive, imaginative, and informed, is step two.
Storm in a teacup? Absolutely not. A storm is gathering, and these gathering storm clouds cannot and should not be ignored.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.