Special measures

Published 20th January 2014

Written by: Andy Mitchell

Andy Mitchell reflects on a week when once again, we are reminded of further changes ahead for schools and particularly the preparation of teachers in the future and the view from Ofsted.

Reflecting on my second week at the beginning of what is set to be yet another turbulent year for education, where did it go? A week when we heard once again from the Department for Education that they would like to discuss with us what revised GCSEs for the subject might look like. That’s good.  Then Sir Michael Wilshaw speaking from Nottingham at the North of England Education Conference, in characteristic form ‘winding things up’. However, the media didn’t seem to home in as much as I would have expected on one particular aspect, so I’m going to - the fundamental issue of teacher training, or teacher education as many of the profession prefer to call it. Announcing a review of how Ofsted will judge training providers, he warned:

“We will be much tougher on providers as well as schools.”

That’s interesting.  I suspect, he means in part, that inspectors will closely monitor newly qualified teachers and if found to be struggling, it is very likely that those who trained them (and the courses from which they graduated) will be held to account.  So that’s good. I think I know where the blame is going to be laid. Whilst claiming that he was not suggesting that the city’s training providers were responsible for the poor outcomes in school, he then pretty much proceeded to do so, saying:

“On the one hand, Nottingham has two well-established university teacher training providers.” [Nottingham and Nottingham Trent].

“On the other hand, a recent inspection of local schools saw most of them [schools] placed in special measures.

“We need to ask serious questions about whether the quality of teacher training is as good as it should be.”

So that’s something to look forward to isn’t it?

According to Wilshaw: “How many times have I heard head teachers say, we told the provider that this trainee wasn’t up to it […] only to find out this advice had been ignored and he or she had progressed into the classroom?  ” etc.  That is simply not my experience. How many times have I heard head teachers and other professionals tell me that the quality of entrants into the profession is far higher than it used to be? Having many years of experience working both specifically in and on the periphery of teacher education, I know that the quality of provision is vastly superior in most cases compared to that which I received, during a ‘golden era’ at a prestigious university. Beyond doing a good job developing my subject knowledge, by comparison, it did little to prepare me for the rigours of teaching and learning, assessment, behavior management the use of research to influence my practice and so on.

Under the current predominant teacher education route, namely the PGCE, these things are addressed. I agree it is the partnership between the providers and the schools that is so critical and the enabling factor. But I worry greatly about the shift toward the School Direct model, where within this partnership, the balance changes and the contribution that experienced teacher educators working outside of schools may be devalued. Indeed, as a resource to be mobilised, may not even be available, as universities announce their withdrawal or partial withdrawal from initial teacher training, as the Open University and others have announced this year.

We were told that 40% of new entrants leave within 5 years. I am not in the least bit surprised by this Chief Inspector! They are hugely capable, creative and employable individuals, in possession of skills much sought after in other professions.  As we see the green shoots of recovery emerge, this departure might alarmingly be a developing trend. But hang on a minute, if you train with TeachFirst, which incidentally costs far more than a university PGCE course, it’s no problem if you leave after 5 years – indeed the expectation is most will! The questions that need to be asked should be addressed to those who are resigning: Why are you leaving a profession that on the face of it has so many benefits, so much going for it? When I talk to teachers and they express a desire for a change in career, the quality of their preparation to enable them to do the job is never referred to.  What they do cite however is the intolerable work load, the lack of modern resources to teach the subject, the never ending target setting, assessment, predictions and reference to public examination results, at the expense of providing a high quality, broad and balanced education relevant to the needs of their pupils - who lets face it, are not much younger than them. They identify with them.  They are practically the same generation.  Most sadly of all, the job not providing them with the opportunity to do the job they believed they were going to be doing.

Yes there are lots of improvements we could make to D&T teacher education of course. But beyond the obvious one of lengthening the period of time people take to qualify (a one year PGCE does not even last one year) what does this mean for D&T?

We often joke that D&T is different.  And I often say that together with biology, where there has been so much development in terms of scientific knowledge over the past 15 years, if you trained to teach D&T over 15 years ago and haven’t significantly updated your skills and knowledge, you are out of date. All subject teachers have specific needs but in D&T they are pronounced. I count myself in that bracket, no longer working in a teaching environment where I have to keep up to speed with the most recent manufacturing technologies, developments in systems and control technologies and electronics. It’s possible to do this working in a university D&T centre, where the expectation is that alongside colleagues, you carry out research and curriculum development and use it in the teaching of new teachers. Very few teachers in school are able to do this.  Not because they cant but because they don’t have time. That is not (what one head teacher told me recently) their ‘core business’. I am therefore delighted about the current references being made to how essential it is for teachers to engage in high quality CPD! Lets hope…

So what does this mean for the initial-training of teachers, in a model that is rolled out exclusively in school, delivered by teachers who have quite rightly, foremost in their minds the success of their pupils? Will this model encourage experimentation with new materials, developing awareness of and engaging with new technologies subsequently provided in schools and new pedagogy underpinned by national or sometimes international research?   Or will it quite simply mean that we get the imparting of what is already happening upon those entering the profession. The maintenance of the status quo. Whilst not wishing to be critical of schools, I am of the opinion that just because a school has gained Teaching School status, and just because a school has a high percentage of A* to C grades at GCSE, does not necessarily mean it is providing really good D&T.  It follows therefore, that these institutions are not necessarily best placed to pick up the mantel that seems to be being foisted on them.

But would Ofsted recognize good D&T if they saw it? I’m amused that the recently published online Supplementary Subject-Specific Guidance for D&T, December 2013, contains a grammatical error - missing verb perhaps?  See if you can spot it.  OK so it’s a typo but come on, it should be correct if it’s published by the esteemed Government body. I pointed this out over a week ago and it has still not been addressed. Still we know just how busy they are and how much there is to do, as Sir Michael has told us.

More worrying, is who is there at Ofsted providing the lead for the subject? We currently haven’t got one.  I’m personally informed again this week that: ‘This year (2014) we will take a view on when a National Lead post for D&T might be advertised.’  Great!  I’m so pleased it will be ‘this year’! Take your time. Whilst the subject languishes in the wake of the supremely important Ebac subjects, remains unrepresented at the highest levels, whilst ill-informed school leaders marginalize or remove it from their own school’s curriculum, we don’t have a senior authoritative figure available to comment or advise.

At the end of the week, having reflected on yet more emerging trends with the potential to impact negatively on D&T teaching, if I had my time again would I again choose to enter the teaching profession? I thought about this over the weekend and the answer is, yes I would. Why? Because what D&T teachers do and provide is so valuable, so important and consequently so rewarding. Over the weekend I intended to do a whole range of things entirely dependent on the designing and making skills I have developed over the years, many of which I remember learning at secondary school: Using IT to sort out some of life’s logistical problems, redesigning an area of my house using CAD, modeling and working out what materials I might use, working on the plans for harnessing alternative energy on the property, developing the electronically controlled door for the chicken shed, planning and catering for a dinner party, fixing a number of bits of machinery I’m dependent on and designing and building another internal oak door, part of the second fitting work I’m currently engaged with.  In the end time ran out and if I’m honest, only some of it got done. But whilst I was I engaged in these tasks, I did find myself harking back to when I was teaching D&T and how much fun it was.  Passing on the skills some of which I was using, getting kids to think and standing back with amazement at the ideas they came up with, being party to their satisfaction when what they had planned all came together – I don’t think any amount of legislation and interference from Ofsted would stop me doing that!

But it is perfectly possible that I might have become a thorn in the side of the school that chose to employ me.  I would have questioned what I see teachers being asked to do routinely, presented as progress. I would have asked for the evidence supporting the premise on which the changes were founded. I would have wanted to know how the school that was employing me had come to the conclusion that the top down imposed metrics designed to measure one school against another, masquerading as instruments to ‘raise standards’ were actually improving the education of the kids I taught. And I would have seen this attempt to challenge, a responsibility commensurate with being a subject leader and member of middle management. I’d like to think that those occupying these positions today think in much the same way.

The past two years have involved the D&T Association battling at a high level to ensure D&T survives. I’m continually made aware that we are not there yet and there is still a lot to achieve. But it is now in individual schools not within DfE that the battle is really taking place.  The subject’s future is more than ever in the hands of the teaching force that teaches it – often in the hands of one or two individual teachers. No longer are there local authority advisers to call in to provide authoritative support. No longer are there accepted delivery norms that can be referred to. Surrounded by wholesale misunderstanding of what contributes points towards securing a school’s place in a league table, decisions are being made that will take decades to overturn. Special measures indeed are required if what could easily become an erosion of the subject is allowed to continue. Wherever we can and within the means we have available to us, the D&T Association offers expert support and advice to a growing membership.  If you are experiencing cuts in time, resources, option choices and a fundamental misunderstanding of the value of D&T, contact us but also, tell others about it below.

I’ve had a good weekend and I’m looking forward to kick starting a new curriculum development project this week that will involve me with lots of schools and lots of teachers I hope. But that as they say is another story.

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