The market will (not) decide: The creative destruction of England’s teacher education infrastructure

In May 2013, I travelled north to Lancaster, in the north of England, to a conference at which a senior civil servant from the National College for Teaching and Leadership was scheduled to speak. Like most civil servants at his level of seniority, he had been around the block a few times and carried both the world-weariness and brittle charm necessary to survive at length in that environment. Faced with the (what was then) new-ish policy of School Direct and the general uncertainty around higher education’s involvement in initial teacher education, I took the opportunity to ask what seemed like a pertinent question: does the National College or the Government have a view as to whether a PGCE (or other academic award) is a desirable qualification for new teachers or is the license to teach (QTS) sufficient?

Clearly irritated by a question so clearly emanating from the despised ‘Blob’, his lip curled and he spat the answer back: ‘The market will decide’.

Over two years later and with the days of Coalition government well behind us, the answer now, of course, is that the market will not be allowed to decide. The reform philosophy of Michael Gove – and Gove advisors and hangers-on – has prevailed and, albeit channelled through the weaker medium of Nick Gibb, we are experiencing a concerted attempt at the deliberate destruction of some of England’s national educational infrastructure – its highly effective and successful (at least according to the OECD) system of initial teacher education .

Educational reform as disruptive innovation

Tony Blair - excellent rapper; not so good at reform

Tony Blair – excellent rapper; not so good at the reform of public services

In a speech on 26 June 2012, Michael Gove (rhapsodising about Tony Blair and Blair’s views on public sector reform) talked about ‘learning from other nations like Sweden which have pioneered disruptive innovation’. Disruptive innovation is a concept developed by Clayton M. Christensen. While Christensen was talking of business and technology, it was surely not coincidental that Gove referred to these ideas in connection with education reform. It is useful to look more closely at what is involved in this concept: the Christensen Institute explains that:

The theory explains the phenomenon by which an innovation transforms an existing market or sector by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability where complication and high cost are the status quo. Initially, a disruptive innovation is formed in a niche market that may appear unattractive or inconsequential to industry incumbents, but eventually the new product or idea completely redefines the industry. (my italics).

At the same time, the Coalition government introduced many radical reform ideas across both schools and higher education, often on the basis of the supposedly necessary austerity following the 2008 global economic crisis. One of the most significant reforms in the arena of initial teacher education was the abolition or contraction of many of the regulatory agencies that had accompanied the developments of quasi-markets in education (quasi-markets being a consistent feature of the social welfare policy landscape in England since Margaret Thatcher). In what became known as ‘the bonfire of the quangos’, the successor body to the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA; formerly the TTA) was abolished and merged with another to become the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) and a programme of redundancies implemented at the organisation as well as within the Department for Education (DfE) itself. One of the key functions that was lost in this process was the national workforce modelling that the TDA had conducted in order to inform the allocation of places to teacher education providers on a regional basis to ensure stability in teacher supply. Teacher recruitment and supply was one of the key regulatory functions of the TDA and a means by which some control over the quasi-market of providers was ensured.

At the same time, following the Browne review of higher education (2010), the Coalition changed the funding model for higher education by increasing the maximum tuition fee chargeable to £9000 and removing all direct state funding to courses in the arts, humanities and social sciences (including teacher education). Additionally, Coalition policy supported new private providers of higher education in order to ‘stimulate’ the market. One such new private provider of initial teacher education was Hibernia College UK, an off-shoot of a private college in the Republic of Ireland, based in Weybridge, Surrey and led by a former employee of the TDA, Jeremy Coninx. Overall, these changes introduced by the Coalition transferred the funding of initial teacher education to students’ loan debt, debt necessary to pay the increased tuition fee. Although significant financial support was provided for student teachers with first class degrees in some shortage subjects such as Mathematics and Physics, the majority of student teachers had to take out loans in order to pay their tuition fees and living expenses.

School Direct emerged in this highly complex situation where fundamental changes to the funding regimes were taking place, where the strong regulatory agencies that had emerged to monitor welfare quasi-markets in England were being abolished or contracted and where, for the first time, state funding could ‘escape to the private sector’ (as Glennerster put it). School Direct therefore represented a challenge both to the principles of welfare quasi-markets that had dominated neoliberal education policy in England since the late 1980s but also a challenge to the Secretary of State’s espoused commitment to ‘disruptive innovation’. The introduction of School Direct did not simplify, make things more convenient, affordable or accessible. On the contrary, the disruption caused by School Direct and subsequent policies might be more properly understood as a case of ‘creative destruction’.

 ‘Creative destruction’ as an experiment in radical reform

Christensen had developed his theory of disruptive innovation in relation to digital technology entrepreneurship and a theory of change premised on rational choice. Technological innovations that make technology-mediated human interaction simpler, more convenient, cheaper and more affordable will displace earlier (more complicated, less convenient and more expensive) forms of technology and disrupt existing value systems. A key example is that of media storage devices where history shows us how Betamax, VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray disks have each made their predecessors obsolete and are now being challenged by the Cloud and streaming technologies. Although Christensen, writing first in the 1990s, was aware of the idea of ‘creative destruction’, disruptive innovation and creative destruction are somewhat different concepts.

Disruptive innovation: inevitable in commodity entrepreneurship; a problem in public sector reform

Disruptive innovation: inevitable in capitalist commodity entrepreneurship; a problem in public service reform

Creative destruction received significant attention from Marx in Volume IV of Capital. Creative destruction was the signature characteristic of capitalist free-markets – an inevitable and necessary strategy for capitalism to attempt to thrive: ‘the destruction of capital through crises means the depreciation of values which prevents them from later renewing their reproduction process as capital on the same scale’ (Marx 1863/1969)

The effect of continuous innovation […] is to devalue, if not destroy, past investments and labour skills. Creative destruction is embedded within the circulation of capital itself. Innovation exacerbates instability, insecurity, and in the end, becomes the prime force pushing capitalism into periodic paroxysms of crisis. (David Harvey)

In other words, in the end, consumers become so confused and worn down by continual change they put their collective foot down and stop consuming (or stop spending their loans on teacher education). Rather than a technological innovation that makes consumers’ lives simpler and more convenient (Christensen’s disruptive innovation), creative destruction involves a continual revolution in structural values and a continual challenge to stability and, therefore, a continual challenge to the efficient operation of any market. For Marx, the point would come where society would see capitalism for what it was and would actively choose socialism.

The idea was taken up in the 1940s by the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter with whom the concept of creative destruction is now most closely associated in economics. Schumpeter talked about creative destruction as a ‘perennial gale’, one that ‘incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one’. Although Schumpeter originally theorised it in the context of a discussion of capitalist business cycles, he nonetheless was broadly sympathetic to Marx’s view that creative destruction would lead to a crisis of capitalism and the advance of socialism.

Joseph Schumpeter

Joseph Schumpeter – economist and not a man you’d want to be stuck in a ‘perennial gale’ with….

School Direct was distinctive as a policy intervention in the historical struggle for control of teacher education in England in that it attempted to introduce free market principles into an environment shaped by nearly thirty years of quasi-market principles. In practice, this meant creating more freedom on the supply side of teacher education programmes by encouraging schools and private organisations to offer provision and, on the demand side, by making the student a genuine consumer with choice among a diversity of providers and also a choice whether that provision led to an academic award or the professional accreditation of QTS only. These changes, in theory at least, created opportunities for price differentials to grow between the various providers as competition for students/consumers increased. At the same time, the strong regulatory agencies that once intervened and managed the quasi-markets in schools and initial teacher education over the last three decades have been abolished, merged and contracted with the aim of encouraging new entrants to the market and re-organising the market along consumer-led lines. Hence, when asked about the relationship between academic award and professional accreditation, the senior civil servant from the NCTL understandably replied, ‘the market will decide.’ Overall, School Direct was intended to destroy the old economic order underlying teacher education in England and replace it with a new, market-based one.

However, as Meg Maguire and Stephen Ball remind us, policy enactments are never simple and linear and are instead mediated by complex, historically-evolving, cultural and economic structures. The creatively destructive intent of School Direct was confounded by several factors, not the least of which is that when individuals are made ‘real’ consumers and the transaction is genuinely one of purchasing a service, they will make that choice tactically and, usually, on a well-informed and cautious financial basis. So when School Direct did not have a mass appeal to prospective teachers, the government intervened in the market to encourage applicants for university-based courses to switch to School Direct with a somewhat controversial email campaign to prospective teachers registered on the NCTL recruitment advice website as well as a well-funded national advertising campaign. The underlying issue is that when the state is no longer the main funder of teacher education (or indeed of higher education generally), it cannot guarantee the success of its policies in that arena without direct intervention in the market of purchasers.

Second, although there was increased freedom on the supply side, control of the numbers of students permitted to study and train through each provider was still controlled by the state through its residual regulatory functions. So choice between higher education-led provision and School Direct was only permitted among those providers who met the NCTL’s quality threshold. While this might be seen as a sensible constraint, it nonetheless limited the numbers of student teachers allowed at providers to the extent that their provision might become financially unviable and some providers would withdraw from the market. Withdrawals of this kind were routinely made by schools leading School Direct salaried schemes for other reasons – for example when they realised that the salaried route required an investment of around £10,000 from the school’s budget for each trainee (unrealistic for most primary and small schools) or when the administrative burden of operating the recruitment and selection process for very small numbers of places became apparent. School Direct as an idea did not consider the operation of the market in relation both to economies of scale and brand prestige that privilege the more established and larger providers of teacher education (i.e. the universities).

Student loan debt funds the system

Student loan debt funds the system

Third, although student teachers through their loan debt now directly fund teacher education courses in general, in School Direct this funding was channelled through the schools who had been awarded places through the NCTL allocation mechanism. These schools then had to make a choice with which university they work with and whether this partnership would lead to an academic award (the PGCE) or not. As many headteachers recognised that the PGCE and the accompanying Master’s level credits are recruitment incentives to prospective students and teachers, many opt for the PGCE route and end up transferring the majority of the fee they are paid by the student to their university partner to offer the training and supervision that leads to the academic award. Participation in School Direct is not a form of income generation for schools but is now being recognised more as a commitment to developing the profession. The possibility for a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of both fees and quality of provision persists but genuine consumers with graduate-level qualifications tend to make careful choices.

Finally, the significant reduction in regulatory oversight that accompanied the introduction of School Direct meant that the careful modelling of future teaching workforce requirements did not take place in the way that it once did and that regional disparities in teacher education provision became marked. So, for example, few secondary English teachers were prepared in South Yorkshire, Humberside and London while very many indeed were being prepared in the North West. There were (and still are) school-level consequences for teacher recruitment in these regional disparities, especially in shortage subjects where it is hard to recruit teachers.

The ‘non-allocations’ allocations methodology: creative destruction takes one step forward

School Direct on its own did not deliver the expected outcomes for what were now Tory Education ministers, for the reasons I’ve outlined above. Freed of Liberal Democrat constraining influences and emboldened by a five year fixed-term parliament, the Conservative government pushed forward with a new intervention into the supply-side of the market: limit the availability of options that are attractive in a genuinely free market (the established brands of university-led provision) and continue to expand apparently school-led provision. For entry to teacher education programmes in England in September 2016, the National College implemented a new methodology for awarding places and therefore channelling income to providers with funding (prospective student fees) separated into different ‘pots’ so that apparently non-university-led provision was more plentifully available (I say apparently non-university led as School Direct and, indeed, Teach First are delivered by universities but behind a convenient curtain).

Keeping universities behind the curtain in ITE makes them easier to replace

Universities are behind a curtain making School Direct and Teach First work – if they do….

Under this ‘non-allocation allocation methodology’, providers would be allowed to ‘express their capacity’ and, under certain conditions, be allowed to recruit up to that capacity. Significantly, however, all providers within their particular funding pot (university-led and school-led, basically) would be competing against each other and as soon as the national pot was consumed, all recruitment activity would have to stop. Chaos was predicted and has indeed ensued. There have been some skirmishes around the right of certain elite universities to retain small, high quality courses and these skirmishes (due to some useful connections, as you might expect, with the Department for Education) have led to some changes and revisions to the model. Depending on where you sit and how you recruited in 2015 – 2016, you may think some stability has been put into the system. But the reality is that the late changes further complicate a destructive model, one that will undermine this and any future government’s attempts to have sufficient teachers standing up in front of classes never mind of sufficient quality. It will be particularly interesting to look at the quality of the 2016 – 2017 cohort recruited to postgraduate courses if the anecdotal evidence (clearly believed by the NCTL given their now regular warnings to the sector) is true of providers gaming the system.

In the October 2nd-8th edition of the New Statesman (2015), Ian Leslie presented a careful analysis of Gove as an education reformer, an analysis unusually sensitive to nuance. But Leslie’s argument about Gove, key advisors (or ‘daemons‘ – Gove’s word) such as Dominic Cummings and those that have followed him is that the driving belief is that real education reform (the kind that Tony Blair, by his own admission never achieved) is messy and leads to damage and destruction (in the short-term and perhaps medium-term, at least). As Leslie put it, the view is: ‘revolutions are messy, and mistakes are inevitable: the radical accepts this as the price of speed’. The radical right does not plan for coherence; it does not design a system; it actively destroys what it sees as ‘vested interests’ and believes that – as in the case of the media storage device business – amidst the chaos and confusion, someone will invent a new product that will attract private capital (and/or in teacher education’s case, student loan debt) and create its own market. We would be quite wrong to view the chaos and destruction in the arena of teacher education policy now simply as ‘mistakes’ along the way or unintended consequences of a grand and laudable, designed plan. Leslie quotes an unnamed advisor to Gove who described the work of education reform as ‘walking along the cliff edge and stamping their [the Blob’s, the vested interests’] fingers off’. Destruction is the thing.

Or at least it would be if the business of teacher education was like the business of media storage devices. But it isn’t. Or not as like it as Mr Gibb and others have been led to believe. By destroying the infrastructure, you damage the overall provision of education to the population, presenting serious risks to the quantity of new teachers being prepared as well as the quality. Ultimately, by destroying public service infrastructure, you damage society. The political challenge for the radical right is how close to the edge they will allow the reform to go – will they stamp on everyone’s hands and watch the whole edifice fall into the ravine? Will they then blame the catastrophe on the vested interests themselves (‘unwilling to reform to the will of a democratically elected government’, blah blah)? Will they resort to direct tenders for all initial teacher education provision – a national franchise bestowed by Mr Gibb and monitored not by Ofsted (far too impartial however wonky) but by battalions of Gove-ian edutwitterati? How many voters will they need to keep on side for 2020? That is perhaps the key calculation; it a calculation that saw the end of Gove, for sure.

Channelling Gove - 'no Kit again, Gibb?'

Channelling Gove – ‘no kit again, Gibb? Do it in your underwear, lad!’

Universities have not acquitted themselves with much honour throughout this destructive reform process. On the whole, they have been defensive of their position; leaders of Education departments have not usually seen initial teacher education as important, other than in terms of income; the Russell Group has made cringeworthy pleadings to the NCTL to be made a ‘special case’. A few university people have tagged along or been co-opted with the Tory reforms believing, as many good people have done in the past, that by ‘staying in’ it is better (to use a rather horrible phrase) to be ‘inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in.’ Too often, good people get damaged by this approach and just end up covered in piss. They become convenient but torn window-dressing for a political class that is primarily interested in the election cycle and having demonstrable ‘achievements’ to tout in future campaigns, no matter how fragile or even false.

Likewise, bodies funded by and supposedly representing the interests of universities in teacher education have been too self-satisfied with small wins over tactics in conversations with DfE and the NCTL and have failed to develop and advocate for a strategy for the importance of higher education in the preparation process on revised and reconfigured lines. (Just for the record, I am not and have never argued for the status quo – it doesn’t work for anyone. See my book with Jane McNicholl, Transforming Teacher Education, for why). It simply isn’t good enough to advise that universities should start up SCITTs (school-centred schemes in which universities take the Ofsted risk) or that we should ‘hoover up’  School Direct places. Vice Chancellors (with some notable exceptions) and sector bodies have maintained a position that deliberately puts universities behind a curtain, preferably invisible to government but nonetheless useful in delivering the teacher education system. Children, parents, schools and teachers deserve better than that. One problem with this approach is that being behind the curtain and advised to be silent on matters of principle, it is easy to replace universities with much cheaper private providers (like Hibernia College, UK) without the general public knowing or, for that matter, caring.

Available from all good booksellers - makes an ideal Christmas present

Available from all good booksellers – makes an ideal Christmas present for the teacher educator in your life ….

The job for universities and sector bodies such as BERA and UCET, it seems to me, is to start to make the arguments about why it is important to have universities involved and to make those arguments in the public sphere and not only in negotiations with the Conservatives; to argue why it is important to plan the preparation of teachers properly and with due care taking into account regional workforce needs; why pretending universities don’t exist or are just interested in returning to the past is just plain wrong; to show how successful school systems around the world rely on higher education and the teaching profession to work together on teacher development; to argue that we are the only developed country in the world that is wilfully destroying its national teacher education infrastructure for plainly ideological reasons; to argue that it is the Conservatives and their radical right cronies and fellow-travellers who are the real enemies of promise.

The challenge for any government in having a world-class education system is to challenge universities to do what they do better and to reward them for innovations that put research-led collaborations with the teaching profession and with schools as community organisations front and centre. We need creative reinvention – transformation – not destruction of England’s teacher education system. Gove’s advisor Cummings was apparently fond of the Facebook motto ‘Move fast and break things’. We probably have about eighteen months to come up with an alternative to the creative destruction of teacher education in England. It is not only Mr Gibb that needs to move fast.

Merry Christmas!


This post is extracted from a forthcoming book on leadership and the global teacher education reform movement to be published in 2016. Please reference this page if quoting. 

I will be talking about these issues (among others) at the TEAN conference in Birmingham in May and at the Comparative and International Education Society conference in Vancouver in March.