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.

Why abolishing Ofsted is not such a bad idea

The Labour Party’s proposal to abolish Ofsted has outraged many and provoked others to argue for a revised regime that produces more reliable ‘judgements’. Both perspectives miss the point: Labour’s aim is not to end school inspection completely but to close down a relatively recently established organisation that is no longer fit for purpose. Local ‘health checks’ and a residual HMI (Her Majesty’s Inspectors) will continue to inspect schools under Labour’s plans and these quality assurance mechanisms will also be situated in a renewed school improvement system that Labour plans to model on the highly successful London Challenge.

Gone would be the oppressive, heavy-handed, ‘short notice’/high-stakes school invasions that have skewed both teaching and teachers’ workload and wellbeing. Gone would be the political noise and the increasingly partisan behaviour of some of the current crop of senior inspectors. As far as HMI goes, it would be a return to a smaller and more carefully selected inspectorate bound by similar codes of practice to previous generations of HMI; inspectors who are sufficiently experienced as well as trained in order to arrive at cogently argued, independent, professional judgements.

Attempting to make inspectors’ ‘judgements’ more scientifically ‘reliable’, however, is a red herring. It is an answer to a different question which is probably something like ‘how can you make classroom observation a more reliable instrument for measuring X, Y or Z?’ Inspection is not research; inspection agencies are not research organisations. Inspection is about checking the quality of often highly divergent entities and practices. To be successful and cause as least harm as possible, it has to rely on the professional wisdom of those who inspect, their capacity to adapt their practice to often wildly different settings, as well as an overarching accountability framework that isn’t primarily punitive. Such a system will occasionally produce unreliable or unfair results because it is human(e) – which is why the consequences of a single inspection event need to be low-stakes and why the results themselves need to be open to greater scrutiny and challenge.

The argument that parents depend on inspection judgements to make decisions about choices of school is notably weak. For decades research has shown that parents’ decision-making processes about schools are multi-factorial; often, believing their children will be safe, happy and close to home are top of parents’ lists of priorities, along with having good support for any special educational needs. And advocates of the role of inspection judgements in informing parents’ choices also ignore the fact that most parents have limited capacity to choose; if their local schools aren’t ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’, most parents don’t have the cash to up-sticks and move closer to another, ‘better’ school (usually in a more affluent and therefore expensive area). What’s needed is a good local school for every child, supported to get better by a school improvement service (along the lines of London Challenge, in Labour’s proposals) and given regular checks by local authorities and, occasionally, by national HMI.

Born in 1992 to John Major’s government, Ofsted is a curious beast. The office of the Chief Inspector has too often been a bully pulpit for the incumbent, most notably for Chris Woodhead. Woodhead was disposed to making things up to fit his personal preconceptions (the figure of 15,000 ‘incompetent’ teachers plucked from the air) or over-turning the inspection results of senior HMI if they didn’t meet with his personal approval (the case of Islington Green School). The current Chief Inspector’s appointment was not confirmed by the Education Select Committee in 2016 with the Conservative MP in the chair saying they were ‘unconvinced’ she was the right person. In the kind of behaviour we’ve become much more used to recently, Nicky Morgan as Education Secretary appointed her anyway.

My own knowledge of Ofsted suggests it can now be a relatively dysfunctional place with HMI complaining to their union (the First Division Association) that they were not consulted about the new inspection framework before key figures in MATs were; that there are significant differences in personal-professional style among senior HMI that are consequential; that some in Ofsted now openly talk about its need to ‘align with government thinking’ rather than maintaining an independent stance; and that former advisors of Nick Gibb have exerted considerable influence on Ofsted’s current direction in ways that continue to trouble some. Ofsted is a relic of a recent historical moment and represents the concerns of that moment. It’s a relic that political parties haven’t had the confidence until now to question so it’s refreshing that Labour has adopted this decisive position.

Abolishing Ofsted is not abolishing inspection. Claiming that doing so is abolishing a critical part of the education system without which it will fall over is nonsense. The education system now is entirely different to the system that existed 27 years ago and most other countries (including many we seem to aspire to be educationally) don’t have anything like Ofsted. Claiming that Labour has been taken over by ‘hardline’ extremists or is too indebted to the teacher unions on this issue is also ridiculous. Changing the ways we quality assure schools is long overdue and must, as these Labour proposals also suggest, be situated within much stronger local improvement services. I would say that the Labour proposals are ‘HMI + local checks and support’. It raises the prospect of a bold new beginning for the system not the end.

In the meantime, I am looking forward to seeing how the current crop of favoured edu-preneurs will pivot to accommodate this policy if Labour do indeed form the next government. They will certainly want a slice of any national version of London Challenge. That’s going to have to be a highly creative dance well worth watching.