Challenges facing HE: teacher education provision under the microscope and what next for the academy?

Dr. Liz Browne is Principal Lecturer For Quality Assurance, Quality Enhancement And Validations and Director of the Westminster Centre for Excellence in Teacher Training at Oxford Brookes University


The Coalition policy which sought to centralise the position of the student in the workings of the academy also marked the beginning of new opportunities for private universities and other for profit organisations to offer, according to policy rhetoric, a more diverse and responsive Higher Education (HE) system. The inevitable outcome of such a policy is impacting on the size and shape of the UK HE sector as new markets emerge, work based learning becomes the mantra, and new routes to the professions become mainstreamed. Focusing on changes to the training of teachers this article described the impact of current policy directives whilst also posing questions about the stability of other Higher Education provision.


‘Putting Students at the Heart of the System’ (DBIS, 2011) in launching major change to Higher Education funding and focus, further proposed the reduction in regulation for new Higher Education providers. Major reform is justified with a rhetoric which calls for the need to widen participation and access to Higher Education provision. In what might be judged a somewhat divergent approach the Coalition had published, less than a year earlier, a document designed to remove teacher education from university control. Given that student teacher numbers have strongly enhanced the widening participation agenda in terms of supporting targets for the number of women career changers and mature students from low social background, the lack of joined up thinking here is apparent. Furthermore, University widening participation targets have been closely monitored by the Teacher Development Agency for more than 13 years concerned about the recruitment, retention and success of ethnic minority entrants into the profession. Contradictions in policy rhetoric emanating from two government departments (DBIS and DfE) raised concerns that need further challenge.

The current status of teacher education

Universities have played a key and effective role in the professional formation of school teachers for many decades (Browne et al, 2012). Universities have given the practice of teaching new focus as a skill supported by a theoretical dimension, giving the profession a status and reputation among those who truly understand its complexity. Universities have helped teachers to place learning and teaching within wider contexts. University based courses have ensured that the theoretical dimensions of learning are related to practice, informed by practice and in turn inform practice. In so doing they have assisted a generation of teachers to inquire and reflect, to think beyond the self and the immediate. Through university based research and emphasis on theory, universities have brought a perspective and rigour to the profession such that:

We have the best trained teachers ever’ (DfE, 2010, p. 1)

The same might be said of university trained Nurses, Social Workers, Midwives and others trained in health related disciplines. Over the last fifty years, during which there has been a gradual expansion of higher education provision, the role of graduate study in the development of critically thinking and reflective practitioners has been celebrated and praised for producing competent graduates confident in their ability to make accurate and research informed decisions for practice (Jenkins, 2008; Girot, 2000; Hirst, 1990; White et al., 2002).

Recent policy iterations have seen proposals for Nurse Education to extend its period of practice prior to study (The Telegraph 25 March 2013). As government policy threatens to destabilize the current modus operandi of UK teacher education it seems reasonable to record concerns that having once dismantled the teaching profession, the government may well move its focus to other university based areas of study.

The proposals for teacher training

The government policy for ‘Training our Next Generation of Teachers’ (DfE, 2011) proposes an apprenticeship model for teacher preparation, aligned to medical training and first proposed as long ago as 1990 (Oser et al., 2006). This model requires schools to directly train new teachers on a supply and demand basis in a scheme simply labeled ‘Schools Direct’. Here learning on the job becomes the preferred model of training. This is the model that operates in Finland and was first proposed during the Thatcher government by the Conservative policy Think Tank the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS, 1990). Based then, on previous policy iterations, the policy rhetoric driving current change was first announced in 2011 marking a gradual shift in the way we train teachers:

‘Over the next 10 years we expect that rather than government managing the ITT system centrally, schools should increasingly take on this responsibility. This does not mean that universities would not be involved. Groups of schools, often led by New Teaching Schools, might establish ITT partnerships and draw on support from universities and other providers’ (DfE, 2010, p. 4).

In 2013 new models of teacher training are emerging at a pace. Training places, as controlled and allocated by government, are being given to schools as a priority with university places then allocated from the remaining pool of available resource.  A re-balancing of training delivery and allocation of places is impacting on the sustainability of university based teacher training courses, leading to closure of some university provision in some cases (Browne et al., 2012). This is despite the fact that Universities have added a theoretical dimension to teacher education giving it respect and status. Furthermore universities have assisted teachers in placing learning and teaching within wider contexts. They have attempted to ensure that the theoretical dimension as explored in academia was related to practice, that it was informed by practice and in turn informed practice. In doing so they have assisted a generation of teachers to inquire and reflect, to think beyond the self and the immediate. Through research and emphasis on theory, universities have brought a perspective and rigour that did not previously exist to the practice of teaching.

So how will School Direct operate?

The potential impact of School Direct proposals can be illustrated by reference to three operational models as described here and based on information published by the DFE (2011).

Model 1 School Direct in Close Partnership

In this model trainees are recruited by the school which has bid for and secured School Direct places. The School selects a university partner and the trainee is registered to follow the university mainstream Initial Teacher Training Programme leading to QTS and a PGCE if so agreed. The change from the traditional delivery model is in the allocation of funding directly to the school, the school having greater influence in the training programme and the school taking key responsibility for selecting the trainee. However, this posing something of a dilemma for the university partner, since the university is still responsible to OfSTED for the quality of the training.  Any school / university partnership that gives total recruitment responsibility to the school is placing high stakes on the school’s ability to select trainees and would present a high risk approach for any university concerned about quality ratings.  The same fears could apply in other professions where ‘time short’ already ‘stretched’ working professionals might be required to take on training roles previously considered the domain of the university.

Model 2: Tailored Provision

Here responsibilities shift quite considerably to the school or group of schools who may commission an accredited body to quality assure their training and support the allocation of QTS and potentially a PGCE. The main training is however delivered by the school (s) for the school (s) and designed by the school perhaps purchasing bespoke training from an accredited university who may then, in a franchise arrangement, award a university qualification. This model shifts the responsibility for teacher training delivery more to schools with universities having to secure confidence in quality delivery (as with Foundation Degrees and FE College designed teacher qualifications) before it agrees to any partnership involvement. Here again the validating university is responsible for quality assurance and OfSTED outcomes, thus requiring university involvement in the provision.

Model 3: Bespoke Training

This is the most complicated model to implement and will require both school and university flexibility to offer training only as required, leading to a major disruption in current delivery patterns and staffing levels. Here, the school (s), as the training provider and in receipt of the training budget, may select to purchase short training programmes from the university partner offering a specialism in any selected training area. The quality assurance dimensions of this model are complex and the inherent flexibility of the model makes viability concerning. This model could lead to school based training with no associated Postgraduate qualification. The accredited provider awarding QTS would be taking a high risk in taking this role with an arrangement that gives the accreditation body little or no control over the quality of the provision.

A reality check

In setting out the three models a clearer picture of the challenges facing our universities comes into vision.  If university supported teacher education is to survive in the School Direct system, the provision offered will have to be of the highest quality.  What School Direct does, in locating Initial Teacher Training finance with schools, is to shift the balance of power in the school/university partnership making schools the purchasers of a service and the brokers and selectors of the institutions they wish to work with. This places pressure on our universities to strive for and to be the best in a competitive market driven culture. It is not hard to see how the School Direct approach might translate into ‘Hospital Direct’, ‘Clinic Direct’, and on to ‘Law Firm Direct’, ‘Architect Direct ‘ models of training, reducing the university influence in the preparation of a range of professional staff.

The OfSTED factor for Teacher Training

One further dimension needs consideration.  In the models described above the responsibility for quality, for achieving the highly coveted badge of OfSTED approval at Grade 1 and/or 2, still lies with the university provider. This seems to run counter to any government drivers forcing teacher education towards a fully school based delivery model.  Given the focus on quality in our universities, driven by databased interrogation at the highest level (Browne et al., 2013), no university will want to associate with provision over which it has limited control. For this reason option 3 above, from a university perspective is out of the question, option 2 will require a great deal of work to reformulate partnership arrangements with option 1 the most preferred university choice.

The future for Teacher Training in Higher Education Institutions

Uncertainty is having a destabilising impact on many Higher Education Institutions where teacher training is delivered. Research has shown that some have prepared for the future by realigning their offer, others are forming strong school partnerships in the hope to survive (Browne et al., 2012). For those working in higher education who have dedicated their lives to training teachers to work in an honourable profession, the current assault of their professional expertise and sense of worth, is hard to bear.


Anyone associated today with Higher Education as a student, parent, an employee, an employer, will be acutely aware of the many changes underway. Such changes impact on the structural organisation of our institutions and the experiences of those working and studying in our universities today. Faced with major reform to the way Higher Education is funded, evaluated and made more accountable, it becomes easier for major changes to be implemented without comment as those most likely to be affected who are focused on change implementation rather than debate. Although potentially heresy, it is suggested that the multitude of change projects underway is deliberate to confuse and distract focus away from the changes that are likely to be the most controversial.  This article has reviewed the changing localities for teacher education, warned of similar seismic shifts for nursing and other professionally orientation apprenticeship provision, and calls for the academy to work collectively to do as much as it can to protect the status of the professions and the dedicated professionals who work in them.


Browne, E. and Reid, J. (2012) The changing localities for teacher education, Journal of Education for Teachers, 38 (2), pp. 497-508

Browne, E. and Rayner, S. (forthcoming: 2013) Managing Leadership in University Reform: data-led decision-making, the cost of learning and déjà vu? Educational Management Administration & Leadership

Centre for Policy Studies (1990).Teachers Mistaught –training in theories or education in subjects? London: HMSO

Department for Education (2010). The Schools White Paper: The Importance of Teaching. London: Department for Education

Department for Education (2011) .Training Our Next Generation of Teachers : An improvement strategy for discussion.  London: Department for Education

Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (2011) Putting Students at the Heart of the System’ London: Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

Girot, E.A. (2000) Graduate nurses: critical thinkers or better decision makers? Journal of Advanced Nursing, 31, pp. 28897

Hirst, P. (1990).  The theory-practice relationship in teacher training, in: M. Booth, J, Furlong and M.Wilkin, (eds) Partnership in Initial Teacher Training, London: Cassell.

Jenkins, A. (2008) Supporting student development in and beyond the disciplines: the role of the curriculum. In: Kreber, C (ed.) The university and its disciplines: teaching andlearning within and beyond disciplinary boundaries. Oxford: Routledge, pp. 157–68.

Oser, F.K. Achtenhagen, F. and Renold, U.(2006). Competence -0rientated Teacher Training: Old Research Demands and New Pathways. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

The Times Higher Education Supplement (2012) Hey, torpid teacher training colleges, leave those kids alone 18 October 2012 By John Elmes

The Daily Telegraph: accessed 10 June, 2013

White, R. and Taylor, S. (2002) Nursing practice should be informed by the best available evidence, but should all first level nurses be competent at research appraisal and utilization? Nurse Education Today, 22 (3), pp. 220–4.

Contact Details

School of Education, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Harcourt Hill Campus,, Oxford OX2 9AT.

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