Bargaining for change: School Direct and ITE reform in England

A new paper from the PETE project, about to be published in the British Educational Research Journal and co-authored with David Spendlove from Manchester, reports on our study of the enactment of the School Direct teacher education reform in England between 2010 and 2014. In the paper, we focus on our interviews with university leaders in two large regions of England, analysing their retrospective accounts of enacting the policy during a particularly turbulent time in education in England – including in higher education – under Michael Gove as Education Secretary. School Direct, as a teacher education reform, coincided with some of the biggest changes to university financial models ever made in the UK – the withdrawal of direct state funding for courses in the arts and social sciences by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government and the tripling of the tuition fee originally introduced by New Labour.

Entitled ‘Mediating School Direct’, the paper examines the mediations of the policy from a socio-cognitive and activity-theoretical perspective; to that extent we are aligned with the James Spillane tradition of policy enactment research. We identify two policy enactment activities (in the activity-theoretical sense) that involved bargaining within and re-brokering relationships between universities and schools. However, we also identify three emotional frames for perceiving School Direct within the policy environment, working with the Vygotskian concept of perezhivanie; here we draw particularly on the work of Marilyn Fleer and colleagues. The most striking thing about our data was the heightened emotion – at the level of perceived existential threat – recollected by the university leaders.

Consequently, we argue that the mediations of School Direct reported by the university leaders in our sample can be understood as limited appropriations of the policy within a highly charged emotional context where institutional risks were felt to be ever-present. In the paper, we also identify the role played by Dominic Cummings, then Michael Gove’s special advisor (now de facto chief of staff to the UK Prime Minister), in the rapid growth of School Direct and its purposively disruptive intent. However, rather than seeing School Direct as the ‘pure’ marketisation of teacher education provision, we suggest instead the logic of the market was simply the most obvious tool with which to shift control and resources away from the universities. Even the concept of privatisation does not fully capture either the intent or the dynamics of change involved in School Direct.

The paper concludes that, in their accounts, these university leaders did not believe that School Direct achieved a transformation of ITE on the basis of a reconceptualization of existing practices. And despite seeking to shift control and resources away from the universities, School Direct was instead re-appropriated into the status quo and ultimately served to entrench the universities’ important structural position in initial teacher education in England, albeit at reduced cost.

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From landscape to political economy: change in teacher education

Teacher education is now characterised by greater organisational diversity in provision in many countries. Markets or quasi-markets for teacher ed programmes are not a universal feature, of course, but even in the Nordic countries, where there remains a stronger, state- planned model, there are modest but sometimes influential new providers at the margins. In the US, the universities, as legacy providers of initial teacher education (ITE), have been seriously challenged in recent years by a new cadre of private providers in what has always been more of a genuine market, one characterised both by price competition and strongly differentiated brands. And England is a highly distinctive case internationally where both the ‘model of the market’ and the state’s interventionist, controlling instincts have led to a sector characterised by historically important providers like public universities and groups of schools (‘SCITTS’) but also new entrants that might be described as ‘enterprising charities’ or even sole trader entrepreneurs.

Our ‘Changing Landscape of Teacher Education’ research is now moving into a different phase with new articles in press and under review that address some of this diversity from a political economy perspective. The first new article, about to be published in the Journal of Education Policy, takes the first round of the Teaching and Leadership Innovation fund as a point of departure and shows how a new political economy of teacher development in England has emerged, arising out of the elision of ‘teaching quality’ and ‘social mobility’ over the last decade of austerity policies. In particular, the paper argues that we are seeing new developments in what Jennifer Wolch (1990) called ‘the shadow state’ – non-state organisations that do work formerly undertaken by the public sector but still within state control.

‘A New Political Economy of Teacher Development’: forthcoming in the Journal of Education Policy

Also under review, a paper that looks at bargaining at times of reform and whether these negotiations stimulate meaningful change in initial teacher education provision. Then, at the end of this year – fingers crossed – we hope that the book reporting on the different strands in our research and taking a comparative perspective across England, the USA and Norway will be published.

Warwick Mansell, freelance investigative journalist and the founder-editor of Education Uncovered website, is a key partner, co-researcher and co-author in several of these writing projects, representing a unique collaboration (in the field of teacher education research, anyway) between academic researchers and investigative journalism. Other collaborators include David Spendlove (Manchester) and Sarah Steadman (ESRC-funded doctoral researcher at KCL).

It’s been a genuinely fascinating experience completing the underlying research over the last couple of years. One previously unexperienced oddity was an intervention by the DfE (the Education ministry in England) who asked our potential research participants not to work with us (the details of which we confirmed through a Subject Access Request)! We’ve also met and talked to a wide range of people and companies that I am certain I would never had encountered if we hadn’t done this research.

So, given the analytic focus we have adopted and the concepts we use to explore the field, it seems the right time to change our project title from the ‘Changing Landscape…’ to the ‘Political Economy of Teacher Education’ (PETE). PETE seeks to:

  • Examining the relationship between privatisation policies framed through discourses of equity and justice, the pedagogies of teacher education and professional identity of the school teacher;
  • Analyse the emergence of new relationships of co-production between the state and teacher education enterprises, including the co-creation of shadow state structures;
  • Understand the rhetorical production of reform ideas and how these create funding opportunities for policy entrepreneurs;
  • Theorise questions of novelty, scale and value in teacher education innovations internationally.

So farewell ‘landscape’ and hello ‘PETE’. More to come.