Open Policy Experiment 1: School Direct and Initial Teacher Training (UPDATED 25/7)

One of the things I wanted to do in the Department for Education was open up the policy making process and run things like wikis in open formats in order to a) start off with better ideas and then b) adapt to errors much faster than is possible with normal Whitehall systems.

Obviously this was ‘impossible’. In the DfE, one is not even allowed (officially) to use GoogleDocs. (Why? Officially – ‘security risk’. Reality – Whitehall’s fundamental operating principle is ‘obedience to process‘. It is not – have a good product, service, or idea. Decentralised collaborations are inherently threatening to Whitehall’s core principles. Hence, for example, why they hate the model of: incentivise a goal and be neutral about method. Although this model has been a success throughout history, it obviously flouts the principle of ‘obedience to process’).

So we could read what was happening in the outside world far from the 7th floor of DfE, and occasionally email or get people in, but we could not interact it with it using modern tools.

But I have a proposal that costs nothing… I’ve planned to do it for a while but today’s twittering on School Direct prompts me to do it now.

I will pick a topic. Today, School Direct & ITT.

And I invite people to enter comments explaining –

What does not work with X?


What specific things would improve it?

The more specific complaints and recommendations are, the better. A curse of being in the DfE was generalised whining and when we asked ‘what SPECIFICALLY do you mean, what SPECIFIC regulation is causing trouble?’, <1% of people had an answer.

I specifically INVITE criticism of what we did. Not abuse, not praise, not general whining – but specific criticism that can be used to improve things.

The ideal comment would be something like –

‘The following specific regulations XYZ and guidance ABC say on pages X the following Y. This is damaging because X. The evidence for this is X. What should Charlie Taylor do? Tell Marcus Bell and his team to eliminate pages X-Y, and rewrite Z to make everything much simpler and the incentives better aligned. The whole of document A should be withdrawn apart from para B on page C, which should be added to D. The funding system causes problems by XXX. If you simplify it by doing YYY, it will eliminate 90% of the problems with A but won’t solve B. B could only be solved by changing primary legislation XXX…’

You get the drift. This is the sort of advice that approximately never is given to ministers or spads. If the people on the ground dealing with the consequences of Whitehall decisions could give them such help, then it is possible that lots of small improvements could be made quickly. I often made small improvements / corrected our own errors  in response to emails from the front line but this was very sporadic – not systematic – and the process left me screaming at my computer that we were, because of the insane Whitehall structures, so disconnected from reality.

Why would you bother?

DfE ministers, spads, and officials watch this blog. They might change things if you help them by explaining SPECIFIC things they can do. They might also think ‘if we do X, then education world will complain Y, so let’s not do it’.

Gove will read the comments (this is not a promise based on discussion but a prediction based on character). Gove is going to be involved in writing the next Tory manifesto. Therefore if you can show why something is wrong / stupid, you have a chance to influence him and give him ammo to head off the appalling stream of gimmicks that are, as we speak, being cooked up. Others in No10 will also read it. (A plus is that this process can influence No10 even though everybody in No10 will deny they even read it.)

Labour’s team read this blog looking for information to harm the Tories therefore will happen upon useful information that may also nudge them in useful directions. If they become the next government – which betting markets think is reasonably likely – you will have helped educate them.

The media read this blog looking for ‘news’ so also will see worthwhile information.

I will try to answer questions (from those interested) about why we made certain decisions, relying on memory, emails, papers etc. But my goal is not to ‘defend what we did’ – it is to discover what we did wrong so others can improve it. Also, NB. I left DfE partly because I was desperate to have as little involvement in the election as possible and I plan on implementing this by being abroad for its entirety so I don’t have to listen to a word. From recent interviews etc, it ought to be clear that this experiment is not designed to help Cameron or any other political force win an election.

Nothing will be censored or edited by me other than abuse/swearing/obvious frivolity etc, so that hopefully reading the comments will be worthwhile.

If nothing comes of it, then I’ll stop and nothing has been lost apart from a little bit of my wasted time. If someone comes up with a better technical solution then I’ll ditch this and transfer whatever has been done to it…

So, School Direct.

What do you think, why, and what should be done. SPECIFICS PLEASE.

I’ve texted Charlie Taylor so you know he’s going to be reading…

UPDATE 1: Acronym glossary.

Someone reasonably pointed out in comments that non-specialists don’t want to have to google all of the acronyms so here is a quick list of the most common used in comments below.

EEF = Education Endowment Foundation:

HEI = higher education institution.

IP = intellectual property.

ITT = initial teacher training.

NLE = national leader of education.

NQT = newly qualified teacher.

PGCE = post-graduate certificate of education.

QTS = qualified teacher status (a Whitehall-defined certification process for new teachers).

R&D = research and development.

SCITT = school-centred initial teacher training.

SD = School Direct. (A post-2010 programme in which schools recruit people before they do training (unlike PGCE), then train them, then often give them a job. Controversy over the flaws / merits of this programme is one of the reasons I did this blog.)

SLE = senior leader of education.

TS = teaching schools.

UPDATE 2: next steps.

To those who have commented…

I am going to leave this thread as it is until Sunday/Monday, then do another blog summarising / clustering the comments and publish that (Monday), in the form of a note to ministers / spads / officials in the DfE. Then people can send corrections / additions etc, and I’ll redo it, then post a final (for the moment) version.

Thanks to all who have contributed so far. I know many of the relevant people in the DfE have read your comments so hopefully some good will come from your efforts…


134 thoughts on “Open Policy Experiment 1: School Direct and Initial Teacher Training (UPDATED 25/7)

  1. The comment below is cut and paste BY ME from Tom Bennett’s blog:

    “My six recommendations to the [Carter ITT] review are:

    1. Imbed a basic literacy about what research looks like in ITT, and the varieties of methodologies available to education researchers- including their limitations
    2. Provide better guidance about best practise in teacher trainee research, rather than just say ‘go do research’
    3. Warn teachers of use perils of blindly conducting Action Research without governance from an established research body. 20 kids in your class for two terms isn’t research. It’s a punt. Which is fine, but a punt isn’t research.
    4. Encourage teachers to become research literate simultaneous to actually practising in a classroom. Real life often sobers us up when blind theory can obfuscate and intoxicate. And theory can illuminate experience.
    5. Encourage teachers to plan their CPD on a research basis, so that even after ITT their powers of research literacy can be used to guide their futures.
    6. While acknowledging the nuance and subtlety of what research actually says ( for example, the front page of the EEF teacher toolkit makes easy reading, but the devil is in the details within), teacher trainers need to present the big picture of what the best research points towards- and most of all, what it insubstantiates. Or fails to substantiate. VAK, for example, isn’t definitely untrue, merely unevidenced. So there might be something in it. But as far as we know, there isn’t. Teach that.

    “The DfE has been surfing the wave of evidence based practice for some time now, and in my discussions with them I’ve never seen anything other than an honest, ambitious desire to find out what represents the best research in education, and disseminate it. With Gove gone, and an election around the corner, all hats are in the air again. Even the outcome of this review is uncertain. Will it launch like a rocket, or be quietly published and filed? Only time will tell if Morgan will be fey- or will we get Carter?”

    Tom Bennett


  2. There is little in this that I would disagree with and you would anticipate that much of this is bread and butter for most HEIs. the disconnect comes from School Direct potentially increasing the theory and practice divide (see my earlier note). Valuing research and recognising that teaching is also an activity grounded in academic understanding seems to be something we have moved away from. I suspect an unintended (or perhaps intended) consequence of the changes in the last 4 years is that there has possibly been a reduction in some of the activities that Tom calls for – despite the increased noise (but the noise is welcomed). Again I mention the discontinuation of MATL and removal of PPD funding which have been a backward step.
    Unfortunately much of the debate is presented as a binary – when the reality is a mixed economy can exist but if this is to be the case then there has to be a transparency to the diversification of ITE.

    Turning briefly to an earlier (insider) post – there is so much in this that I don’t know where to start. However a central message that is emerging is that there really needs to be a considered approach before the next steps in the development of School Direct take place. There should be time taken to capture the very best practice that is emerging as we can’t simply let it grow organically or let the market dictate its development – there is too much at stake for this to be allowed.


    • Tom Bennett seems to be mainly concerned to inoculate front-line teachers against ingesting snake oil. That seems to me to be a reasonable reaction to current conditions but somewhat defensive as a long-term strategy – sort of like giving travelers training in self-defence before sending them out into bandit country. The better long-term objective would be to encourage the emergence of a professional environment in which even gullible teachers are not likely to be waylaid by quack prescriptions.

      So the question is how to foster the emergence of such an evidence-based environment in which a reliable consensus emerges on good pedagogical practice. David’s second paragraph makes the assumption that the market is inferior as a way of achieving that goal than central control exercised through the authoritative identification of best practices. The truth of that assumption will depend on (a) how much you trust the agencies that are exercising central control, and (b) how the market is set up: e.g. how transparent are your information flows, how flexible are the procurement mechanisms, who are the customers and how they are incentivised. The history of educational theory suggests to me that the picking of pedagogical best practices by central authorities has been extremely unreliable. That appears to many of us precisely why we are in our current mess.



  3. Seems to me that there is a significant issue in science and maths education here. We want research to be “scientific” ie stand up to the sort of rigour that double blind surveys do in medicine. One ground breaking study on that basis in the 1980s was CASE (Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education) at Kings College carried out by science educators. It showed that children that went through the CASE programme improved all their GCSE grades, not just science. Now one would think that concrete evidence like that would take precedence but the National Curriculum scuppered it with retrenchment to a knowledge based syllabus. And more recently all the transferrable skills and knowledge stuff is being called into question by Willingham et al on the basis of the science of how memory works. So even when there is “scientific research”, we end up with conflicting results and polarised politics. The problem is that most teachers and probably many ITT lecturers don’t have the maths or science to know what is and is not scientific and how to work out how reliable their conclusions are. I did an error treatment of the data in my MSc dissertation in Education Management. My supervisor asked what all the complicated maths was about and said the final examiner wouldn’t understand it so it was not worth including. Hmm.

    On VAK I’d say context of learning is a motivator and there is strong evidence that people have different preferences for learning context otherwise every child would choose the same options when given a choice (assuming its not just teacher preference). So probably if we changed from preferred learning style to preferred learning context there might well be a case, and its probably as much to do with the Amygdala and motivation as it is the Cortex and working memory. But maybe that needs a research project 🙂


  4. Further to your comment earlier about ‘good’ schools’ views on ITE. I have just read this blog by the Head at a school which might fit your ‘good’ school category who is very positive about recently PGCE trained new teachers.
    I don’t think the situation is a drastic or clear cut as we are being led to believe.


  5. Paragraph 3? One emotionally laden anecdote in a highly non-representative context is hardly the stuff to engender confidence in rational and research led approaches to education reform. While we have this constant politically confrontational point scoring I can’t see much hope for change.


  6. People are free to leave more comments but… I’m now travelling and may not be able to click APPROVE for a day or so. I’m writing up a summary of the above debate to post next week. I know that relevant officials and others have read all this and are thinking about it. I don’t know what they will do. I’ve also learned a lot from the comments. Thanks again to all who have contributed. D


  7. A few things to note, first this discussion seems to have become dominated by a few insistent voices. This seems to be the norm in discussing education and ITT in particular. There are a few misconceptions flying around. Namely that ITT HE tutors are somehow dissociated from ‘real’ practice in schools, odd as most of them, like myself either came recently from schools as teachers or school leaders, or are still working part time in schools and/or are researching in schools while engaging with their own studies, in my case my Doctoral studies in education. Nearly all HE ITT tutors also work as link tutors in schools alongside mentors so this myth of academic remoteness is rather strange and is rather more indicative of ignorance as to the who and what of ITT academics. Besides for HE ITT tutors/academics teaching in HE is the major part of their work load. Added to this is that most HE ITT tutors specialise in teaching subjects that they themselves are specialists in, unlike many secondary teachers, particularly STEM. Unlike schools HE ITT tutors keep up to date with latest research and are indeed forced to anyway via the mandatory revalidate on of courses. It is true that the PGCE course is too short, many of us in HE ITT have argued for it to be extended,

    with specifically a more focussed mentored NQT year, as others have noted mentoring beyond ITT leaves a lot to be desired and it could be argued that it is this that causes a lack of retention later on, especially as NQTs report high satisfaction with their ITT.

    Click to access DFE-RR306.pdf

    We should also note that there are far more routes into training than being discussed. I myself came via the GTP route, but having now experienced teaching, mentoring and tutoring undergraduate full time, part time, PGCE full and part time including school direct and other modular forms in Primary and 7-14 I realise that we need routes that suit people and schools rather than ones that just suit a particular ideology, either left, right or indifferent.

    Finally, the recent meme about training teachers to be researchers is a red herring, we already do! Admittedly it could be done better by some ITT providers, but we shouldn’t confuse the development of a reflective, reflexive critical practitioner via enhanced courses formed around research with attempts by some commentators to promote certain limited forms or research practice.

    ITT has improved in this country and it is alive and aware to the need to be proactive to current research (most of which it actually does with partners in schools) but divorcing it from that research base as a practice only form of ITT would run the risk of turning a profession into a calcified form of turgid regurgitation laid open to the whims of corporate necessities rather than that of the society it should serve.

    Many thanks for opening this up to discussion in this way.


  8. The quality of the above comments demonstrate (by and large) just how strong a position education in this country is potentially in to continue the trajectory of improvement we are already on. Many thanks everyone for fascinating reading.

    I think these comments demonstrate that the issues are unfortunately not just a case of small, specific changes to the implementation of a policy – for example making the administration process simpler for schools, by making the default option to leave this administration to HEIs who had the relevant admin staff and experience – but actually I can bring it down to a single point. If I were to list what I thought to be the positive and negative points of SD I would be pretty close to whatever kind of consensus might emerge from collating everything above and nearly all of these could have been fixed if the SD model had developed slowly with continuous reference to existing best practice, and adjustments as necessary to build on the successes of the emerging model and to avoid emerging problems. So the single change that was needed to make this policy work better, was the rate at which it was expanded.


  9. To follow those who have already provided their own analysis of this discussion, I would say that there is a sharp divide between:
    * those who believe that the current model of ITT is already working pretty well and steady improving;
    * those who think the current model of ITT (and perhaps even the wider perception of what constitutes best practice) is fundamentally broken.

    I suspect that most people who read Dominic’s summary will already have made up their mind on this point. Nor is there any significant evidence or argument that is presented here that is likely to change their existing views.

    Maybe it would be best if Dominic produced two completely separate reports, which could be written up like one of Ian Livingstone’s Dungeons and Dragons books. “Do you think the current model of ITT is broken? If yes, go to paragraph 24, if no, go to paragraph 267”.


  10. I’d recommend following this Facebook post for feedback from School Direct trainees, as well as perceptions of School Direct versus ‘PGCE’ (a false comparison, of course, given that many School Direct courses offer a PGCE qual) from prospective teachers.


  11. Ian, You obviously have high expectations of Dominic’s output!

    I take your point & I am not saying everything needs to start from scratch, but that our view of what represents good practice should always be provisional in a world (a) where we hope that technology may change much, (b) where existing views sit on a pretty shaky evidence base. When you step back from the content of ITT (much of which I agree will survive) and look at the type of intervention that government should take in this area, I think you start to see the two halves of the report diverge more clearly – in my view, away from prescription and standardisation of practice (which is always implied by “best practicies”) and towards enabling innovation, which includes ensuring that there are good mechanisms to sort the wheat from the chaff.


  12. I have a wife who has been an initial teacher trainer in a University for 7 years after 35 years in the primary sector classroom or as head teacher. i also have a son who did very badly at Uni but managed to get a SCITT placement and he has since become a very good secondary science teacher.

    I would not defend either route into teaching as necessarily the best as it always depends on the quality of the specific scheme.

    My observation is that his SCITT scheme was not woderful but he made it nevertheless.

    Once my wife acquired responsibility for running the primary ITE programme, i believe she did it as well as she could but the University was the problem as it had awful and mind-numbing bureaucracy. It would not recognise a qualified and experienced head teacher as having just as much, if not more status as a PhD holder with no teaching experience so denied promotion to the teacher.

    The result was dreadfully incompetent management and the introduction of teaching and assessment regimes completely dysfunctional to trainee teachers.

    Despite all this I do not think that the university is necessarily the wrong place to deliver ITE.

    With appropriate recognition of the status of experienced practitioners, Uni is probably a good place to do ITE because it should be able to ensure that trainees get a proper grounding in pedagogy and practical teaching skills. This may not really occur in school direct schemes.

    It would be better to continue to offer both training routes as some people would benefit from one but not the other and vice versa.


  13. Pingback: UPDATE DOC – Open Policy Experiment 1: School Direct and Initial Teacher Training | Dominic Cummings's Blog

  14. Pingback: Evidence is not a substitute for our values? | Dr David Spendlove's Blog

  15. Pingback: What should we do about ITT? | Love Learning....

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