The UK government’s increasingly proscriptive policies on teacher education could start encroaching on universities’ autonomy, say Viv Ellis and Keith Turvey

Published by: Times Higher Education Viv Ellis and Keith Turvey

Published on 6th March 2020


While education secretary Gavin Williamson is giving universities a “final warning on free speech”, the Department for Education and Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, are making an unprecedented attack on the autonomy of universities.

Initial teacher education (ITE) continues to be an important part of the work of most English universities’ education departments despite an oversight creep that began when Ofsted first acquired the right to inspect ITE programmes in the mid-1990s. The results of inspections are linked to funding through the allocation of student numbers; a failed inspection can lead to a judgement of “non-compliance” and course closure.

New Labour initially sought tight control and imposed a very detailed ITE national curriculum in 1998, also forming the basis of inspection by Ofsted. After 2010, inspections became a two-stage process. The first stage was conducted when teachers were still students; the second involved inspectors visiting newly qualified teachers in their first posts. Hence, universities were held to account for the performance of their former students, months after courses had ended.

The system was also highly authoritarian in implementation, obliging heads of department to sit near a telephone every Thursday morning, for months on end, in case Ofsted called to announce that an inspection was to begin the following Monday. The point was to keep the sector permanently vigilant.

Tight control of ITE was ratcheted up again just prior to December’s general election, when a mandatory “content framework” was published hours before purdah descended. That this document was published in a hurry is indicated in at least two ways: first, the file’s meta-data and its list of references showed that it had been largely copied from an earlier document, the Early Career Framework, designed to support new teachers post-qualification. Second, many of the researchers who had given evidence to the DfE-nominated group tasked with putting the new ITE framework together were dismayed to find that their contributions were not reflected at all in what was published.

Then, on 27 January, Ofsted published a draft ITE inspection framework for consultation. The proposed inspection methodology is startling not only because it seeks to enforce high levels of compliance with the content framework – ensuring that gross oversimplifications of theories of learning are taught to trainee teachers, for example – but also because, for the first time in Ofsted’s history, inspectors are actively seeking to prohibit certain research from being taught at all.

The proscriptions concern the teaching of early reading: universities may only teach a method called systematic synthetic phonics (SSP), which advocates teaching young children all the separate phonemes in English and how they can be synthesised into words. The draft inspection framework states that an “inadequate” grade will be given to any departments teaching “competing” theories.

This marks a new nadir in the role of the state in English ITE. Students will be taught impoverished versions of psychological theories of learning that would not be tolerated in the psychology department – or, indeed, in any other part of the education department. Even more starkly, they will not be allowed to be taught any “competing approach” to SSP (such as for young children who are deaf or hearing impaired). Nor will lecturers be permitted to contextualise SSP in the history of ideas about literacy learning; or subject the theory to scientific critique.

To appreciate fully the regressive stranglehold that such proscription places on professional education, imagine a university being required to teach medical students about a course of treatment that they know is not in itself sufficient, or effective for all patients, and yet being prohibited from teaching them about other viable treatments for fear of being closed down.

Some in the sector are now openly questioning whether it is time for universities to withdraw from ITE. Are vice-chancellors really prepared to allow their premises and staff to be used by the state both to mandate inferior “content” and to participate in what is effectively an exercise in book-burning? Or might it be better not to be at home when the inspector calls?

Viv Ellis is professor of educational leadership and teacher development at King’s College London. Keith Turvey is principal lecturer in education at the University of Brighton.

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