The Carter Review: Not so much a bang as a splutter?

Ding dong!

So here is the report of the strangely ‘independent’ Carter Review of ITE in England. And what a strange show it was. The man himself – a favoured head teacher from Surrey; followed around the country by small gang of civil servants trying to smooth his way, on a good day reminding people of The Thick of It; everyone rightly prompted of the seriousness of the whole project by Dame Samantha Twiselton, director of the Sheffield Institute of Education, of whom more later; with occasional destabilizing interventions by pale green ghosts of former regimes; all served up on the cheap, with virtually no budget and no serious attempt to survey the available, vast research literature (compounded by some serious cherry-picking in the final report).

A factor in the panel's deliberations

A factor in the panel’s deliberations?

And as is our way in England, we turned this into a story something like 24 or the Bourne Legacy, with a villainous S’randrew prowling around with a weapon of mass destruction; everyone implicated in multiple conspiracies, none of which made much sense; a bunker beneath Sanctuary Buildings with hundreds of little Oxford PPE graduates scanning monitors and looking for the rogue teacher educators dissing phonics; Gove himself (who else?!) stroking a plump white cat while cackling; and, of course, all the time putting ourselves in the role of the righteous but misunderstood hero, the Jason Bourne role, the one who vanquishes the villain and gets their name above the title – a little mixed up, damaged even, but on the side of the sensible.

Of course, while such a great big, well-organised, coherent conspiracy theory may make us feel better about ourselves – especially if we don’t want to change things – it is just isn’t like that. It’s not the British way. We’re not as well organized, for a start; we don’t fund things as well as the Americans (it would be someone from Emmerdale you’ve never heard of in the lead role in this thriller); we tend not to do our research; it’s all a bit of a palaver, really. It’s not Keifer Sutherland, Claire Danes, Kevin Spacey or Helen Mirren. It’s Wilfrid Hyde-White, Terry-Thomas and Irene Handl in the kitchen of a top floor flat in Pimlico looking for the cooking sherry. And not finding it. Because Irene Handl drank it yesterday and hid the bottle. (No similarity to characters living or dead intended).

So what do we know now – after the Carter Review – that we didn’t know before? In all honesty, I’m not sure that much. For me, its main contribution was to raise some important questions about the PGCE as the qualification for teachers and the relationship to QTS, essentially the license to practice that is in the gift of the state, on the recommendation of organisations such a universities. The direction of travel for S’randrew and some (though by no means all) of the review panel was to decouple the two things and to advocate that the essential qualification was QTS with PGCE as an optional (and much derided) academic supplement. That was certainly the line that the NCTL has been pursuing for a few years stating, when asked their view about the importance of the PGCE, that it was a question ‘best left to the market to decide’. The most notable part of the whole Carter Review process for me was in the government’s response, paragraph 12, which makes it clear that the two Coalition parties couldn’t agree on this matter and therefore the government couldn’t act.

The report raises an interesting question about variability in content between PGCEs and notes certain areas (such as attention to assessment and feedback) that it found deficient – although the panel’s evidence base (for any of their judgments) is fairly random and weak. Of course, from the report, it is not clear what evidence they have used to form this judgement and therefore it is not clear how robust this finding is. But I do also wonder whether, if the training provided on PGCEs does enable the overwhelmingly vast majority of PGCE students to meet the standards for QTS, whether variability is an issue? If you cover the core well enough to meet the standards, is it necessarily a problem that one PGCE provides more attention to SEN and inclusion, another less to SEN and more to teaching children with EAL, and yet another develops real expertise in assessment for learning? One could argue that any such ‘variability’ – the kind that enabled people to meet the standards but that also offered different yet valuable specialisms on top – was a positive outcome of a market for PGCE qualifications.

Another kind of variability was also identified as an issue – the number of credits at M-level attached to the PGCE as a postgraduate qualification (and the amount of work attached to them). But that sort of variability should be picked up by external examiners and also through QAA reviews. If your PGCE has more than 60 M-level credits, it’s not a PGCE. It might be a PGDE, for example, as it is in Birmingham. If there are such variability issues across the sector, that should be dealt with swiftly by a focused set of QAA monitoring visits. The regulatory frameworks and evaluation systems already exist to address those issues.

That said, though, I do think the questions raised about the value and purpose of the PGCE are worth pursuing. Some of the best evidence to the Carter Review, I thought, came from the teacher unions and it was ASCL who recommended a ‘long and thin’ approach to teacher professional development. Such an approach would keep new teachers learning in the workplace over the first three years, for example, with an initial ‘bump’ representing something like the current PGCE followed by two to three years of ‘long, thin’ opportunities to continue learning in the workplace but supported by a stronger, research-based contribution from the universities.

After 23 years (since the publication of Circular 9/92) and the essentially unchanging pattern of the PGCE (two thirds in school; one third somewhere else, roughly-speaking), you might think that the universities who take teacher education seriously would have some bright new ideas about developing things. My sense is that is not the case. When the PGCE was unproblematic and things ticked along nicely, university Education departments took their eye off the ball and focused on increasingly social science-oriented research that spoke to social scientists and not many others. The intellectual vacuum about where the field of teacher education might go in the future is startling and worrying. So I think that the Carter Review gives universities an opportunity to take the lead and put some new ideas on the table. If they are indeed the experts, it is reasonable to assume that universities should have some good ideas about ITE.

Many in our university departments of education have been heard to ‘breathe a sigh of relief’ when the Carter Review was published. That ‘sigh’ could be very dangerous – both for the profession and the university discipline of Education. A relatively benign context for change has now been created for us through, I am guessing, the political/therapeutic work of Dame Samantha on the review panel itself and (if the rumours are to be believed) the intervention of Lib-Dem David Laws from a non-ideological and worriedly practical standpoint (‘Teacher recruitment crisis? What crisis?’). Jane McNicholl and I have written a book about these issues, set in historical and international context. Did I mention that? Not sure. But it is available to buy from here.

Irene says: 'Buy this book - perfect with a cuppa and a rich tea biscuit.'

Irene says: ‘Buy Viv and Jane’s book – perfect with a cuppa and a rich tea biscuit.’