In what, internationally, is becoming a sure sign of an impending general election, here we have yet another review of initial teacher education in Australia – a ‘thousand and second damnation’, perhaps, in the words of one of the review panel members. Delivered to former minister Alan Tudge in October but released last Thursday with the minister still missing in action because of an inquiry into a relationship he had with a staffer, the report of the Quality Initial Teacher Education (QITE) review is a curious mix of serious reflection and scatter gun politics, with a deeply colonial flavour.
The report powerfully underscores the national responsibility to address Australia’s First Nations communities through multiple means in educational contexts, including better support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to enter the profession and better preparation for all teachers to teach in a culturally responsive and sustaining way. Combined with a strong emphasis on ensuring better representation of Australia’s diverse and multicultural communities in the teaching profession, the report’s authors should be congratulated for signalling the powerful part that teacher education can play in fostering a fairer and more equitable society.
Also worthy of note is the call for the government to raise the status of the teaching profession in Australia and, more indirectly, cautioning policy makers about using schools in politically motivated culture wars if they wish to improve both recruitment and retention in the teaching profession.
The report is sometimes characterised by a naïve understanding of what counts as ‘evidence’. For example, the injunction to use more randomised control trials in teacher education programs, apparently recommending universities deny some prospective teachers in control groups the beneficial treatments, at the same time as urging universities to reduce the length of programs to get teachers into classrooms quicker. The rhetoric around the ‘gold standard’ of RCTs is telling; it’s most often wheeled out when people have not engaged with the multiple forms of evidence that can give policy-makers good reasons why a reform is worth scaling. Good policy requires good judgement about what research can and can’t tell you rather than slavish adherence to methodological dogma.
Further contradictions are apparent in the report’s approach to innovation. The system-wide encouragement of innovation is critically important factor in developing the quality of ITE – to be welcomed – but panel’s recommendation of greater political control of the content of ITE curriculums through proposals for ‘quality’ measures tied to commonwealth funding will lead to an overwhelming focus on compliance. The evidence internationally is that the tighter you control provision through monitoring and audit cultures, the less creativity and innovation you get. A different kind of culture is needed, one that expects universities to be innovative with ITE.
Similarly, a welcome emphasis on high expectations for ITE programs is contradicted by the proposal to shorten them to a year for those with ‘good subject knowledge’, for example. This recommendation both contradicts the evidence about teachers’ subject knowledge (where a teacher’s advanced qualifications in mathematics, for example, can lead to poorer outcomes in mathematics for primary age students) and runs against international trends where the period of initial preparation is being extended. The issue for career-changers is how they support themselves during a career transition not the length of the program alone and there are already examples of accelerated programs where student teachers are paid for work in schools alongside learning to teach. Reducing the length of programs in itself will just make it more difficult for the panel’s aims to be realised.
The references to the ‘United Kingdom’ Core Content Framework are just embarrassingly ignorant and unworthy of inclusion in a serious document. There is no UK framework. The UK is made up of four nations and the panel is referring to the highly controversial framework for England that is widely regarded as deeply ideological and fundamentally amateurish (it was shown to be copied and pasted from another document in a political rush to get education policies out prior to the 2019 British general election). Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have far different frameworks for ITE – with the Welsh policies being especially worth reading for their requirement for schools and universities to work together in consortia. This part of the report is pure colonial political theatre.
Which brings me to perhaps the single greatest weakness. Overall, the report continues to perpetuate the myth that the quality of an ITE program is overwhelmingly down to what universities teach on campus. This report, like so many others, betrays a profound lack of attention to the importance of what happens in schools. Schools placements – especially longer ones – present powerful, practical learning opportunities for student teachers. Yet Australian schools, especially private ones, do not all have a history of offering placement opportunities. Any serious national effort to improve ITE would also address how schools can better exert their powerful influence on what and how new teachers learn to teach in collaboration with universities. The best policy frameworks internationally (e.g. Norway’s, the US federal ‘teacher residency’ initiative, and yes, Wales) do just that.
Having a whack at universities just prior to a general election is an expedient way of provoking a ‘debate’ about the state of a country’s education system without attacking teachers directly. Despite a strong start – such as emphasising the part that teacher education can play in fostering a fairer and more equitable future for Australia – the QITE report soon descends into yet another rather predictable damnation.
Viv Ellis is Dean of the Faculty of Education at Monash University. His latest book (with Lauren Gatti and Warwick Mansell), The New Political Economy of Teacher Education: The Enterprise Narrative and the Shadow State, will be published by Policy Press in November 2022.
The announcement of the Quality Initial Teacher Education Review (QITER) and publication of the expert group’s discussion paper reminded some in the initial teacher education (ITE) and research communities of the continuing influence of England on Australian education policy as well as this country’s own unique history of a hundred and one damnations in teacher education reform. The QITER discussion paper refers to English innovations such as Now Teach as well as to policy documents like the 2015 Carter Review. And the QITER expert panel has met with their English equivalents, according to panel members at a recent Australian Council of Deans of Education (ACDE) event.
Since that ACDE event, the English panel, tasked with conducting a review of the ‘ITE market’, has published its report. The panel proposes dismantling much of England’s ITE infrastructure, forcing all providers to be reaccredited from scratch (to financially unviable criteria and unrealistic timelines); mandating 28 weeks’ placement in schools in all 38-week postgraduate ITE courses; and requiring absolute compliance with a government-prescribed curriculum – the Core Content Framework – under threat of dis-accreditation through inspections by the government’s schools inspectorate. Despite having demonstrated high quality ITE provision over at least the last ten years, according to the government’s own data, it is now possible for universities and school-based providers to fail inspections on the basis of what some of their staff believe and say in interviews with inspectors (there is no observation of training). Indeed, in the last few weeks, courses have started to fail because of what some people believe about teaching and programs have closed.
So, in these last few weeks, especially, I wasn’t surprised that colleagues in Australia, noticing what they describe as ‘similar voices’ here, have asked me, as a relatively recent arrival in Melbourne from London, whether what is happening in the UK could happen here?
My answer has been ‘no, at least not yet’ and this is why.
First, England is not the UK. Historically, Scotland has always had greater independence in education and, since political devolution in 1999, Wales has been developing its own distinctive education system that is largely autonomous. So, my summary of the current state of ITE pertains to England only. We are not talking about comparisons with ‘UK policy’ but considering Australia (crucially, a federation) in relation to one out of the four UK jurisdictions. And what has gone on in England, as I will explain, makes it an international outlier – or aberration, depending on your point of view.
This degree of tight control over a national school system is fundamental to understanding ITE reforms in England and what is possible in Australia. To create the conditions for the English situation to be replicated here, a new constitutional settlement between the states and the Commonwealth would be essential so that Mr Tudge and his successors directly control all Australian government schools.
Control over schools in England – cleverly presented by Conservatives as an opportunity for a ‘school-led’ system – is critically important in explaining is the situation in England because when the state controls school funding, the curriculum and assessment, teachers’ professional standards, in-service professional development and qualifications, it is a comparatively small (if significant) step to then control how teachers are trained.
Secondly, the distinctive context for the English ‘ITE Market Review’ has been produced in part by the abolition of virtually all autonomous, non-governmental regulatory or deliberative bodies (known as ‘QUANGOS’) in education in England following the 2010 general election. Justified by austerity policies following the global financial crisis, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Training and Development Agency for Schools, the National College of Teaching and Leadership and others were all abolished by the education minister, Michael Gove, alongside then special advisor, Dominic Cummings, an architect of the Vote Leave (Brexit) campaign.
In the Political Economy of Teacher Education (PETE) project, my colleagues and I drew on the work of Jennifer Wolch to describe the abolition of these agencies as ‘selective dismantling’ of key institutions that provide democratic oversight and scrutiny. As we pointed out, such selective dismantling ‘reduces opportunities for public deliberation and accountability while strengthening the decision-making powers of policymakers’. Governance structures, professional regulation and accreditation, curriculum and assessment policies, funding – are all now owned by the ministry – the Department for Education – right across England, with few exceptions. One exception is Ofsted (the schools inspectorate) that also inspects all ITE providers. However, in addition to being seen less as an independent agency than a tool of enforcement for party-political purposes, Ofsted has also been empowered to conduct ‘research’ that becomes an integral part of justifying policy. Concerns over the quality of Ofsted’s ‘research’ reached a peak recently concerning its review of Mathematics teaching when authors of several studies cited asked for the review to be withdrawn over misappropriations of their research.
In addition to these structural differences, the cultural, political and economic contexts for education in England have also developed along highly distinctive lines, something we identified in the PETE project as a new political economy of teacher development, In 2016, Verger, Fontdevila & Zancajo characterised English education policy as ‘privatisation as state reform’ where ‘public sector monopolies’ had to be marketised to be made more efficient and radical policy interventions were justified by ‘crisis frames’. In our early work in the PETE project we aligned ITE policy reforms in England with the loose coalition of interests known as the GERM – the Global Education Reform Movement. Under this analysis – and consistent with Wolch’s research on outsourcing public services to the private sector – a market of new entrepreneurial, private providers would emerge that would challenge ‘vested interest’ legacy institutions such as universities.
Innovation would come through market disruption.
However, what has happened in England – or, at least, has become more obvious – is that successive governments have not primarily intended to create a market of any kind; there has been no genuine interest in new forms of enterprise and competition. Their intention has not been merely to create what Wolch called a ‘shadow state’ – an assemblage of multiple non-state providers functioning in a (quasi-) market ‘administered outside of traditional democratic politics’.
Rather, for these Conservative governments, the ‘market model’, asWendy Brown observed, is just familiar narrative cover for increasing state control.
Since 2010, reaching its apex in the recommendations of the latest report on ITE, England has experienced the heightening of the fundamental ‘free market/strong state’ contradiction in modern British conservatism where an absolute commitment to restoring/sustaining (often regressive) cultural traditions and traditional forms of authority has trumped free market principles and libertarian instincts and has done so in increasingly authoritarian ways.
Distinctively, too, English education ministers have relied on a very small number of individuals (a few teachers, current and former, often with very limited classroom time, usually active on Twitter, and one with unsuccessful experience as a nightclub bouncer; some chief execs of those multi-academy trusts; and always, always the same professor) upon whom they have bestowed political patronage, a sub-set of whom have also been funded to compete with legacy providers like universities or traditional education entrepreneurs. In the PETE project, we characterised these types of organisations as ‘co-created shadow state structures’ as they arose out of the meeting of the needs of an authoritarian state with the entrepreneurial instincts of some of those in receipt of political patronage. In our analysis of one policy intervention in 2017, for example, we found one organisation had won the largest proportion of the available funding for teacher CPL despite the fact that it didn’t exist at the time of the tender and had no track record.
Again, for similar conditions for ITE reform to exist in Australia, a different kind of conservatism would have to be dominant in policy-making, similar to the variety that has taken control of education in England. My limited experience of Australian politics suggests that while cultural restorationism and authoritarianism are not entirely absent from politics here, what tends to dominate are more classical liberal models that value ideals of small government, free markets and personal liberty.
That’s not to say that traditionalism and authoritarian statist instincts, in the way that Poulantzas conceptualised them, do not have influence but they are not determining education policy in quite the comprehensive and urgent way that they are in England.
Finally and crucially, ITE providers in England – including, perhaps especially, the universities – lost the arguments about teacher education a long time ago, largely because they were not present in them.
The organisation representing universities involved in ITE in England went along with the general direction of reforms and only recently seems to have woken up to the fact thatit is now ‘do or die’ for the sector.
Additionally, sector leaders in England, often in the research intensive universities, prioritised research performance and league tables and were prepared to proletarianise teacher educators (and I use that word technically) in pursuit of ‘research excellence’, as Jane McNicholl and I showed. What has been missing in the years leading up to the current crisis in England are confident, non-defensive voices arguing the case both for genuine diversity of provision and innovation in ITE and for building strong research programmes in teacher education, just as would be the aspiration in any other area of research. Universities, especially, if they believed they had a strong contribution to make to ITE and that, as universities, that contribution was partly in the form of research and innovation, failed to make it happen in England.
In discussing what might happen in ITE in Australia, I have met a few people who have argued vigorously for a more ‘joined-up’ education system here. I have heard frustration that good ideas emerging from the Commonwealth government are not picked up by states and that children and young people do not always get the education they deserve. One or two have even said to me they wished Australia was following the example of England in both the direction, coherence and pace of reform. My response has been ‘be careful of what you wish for’. Australia needs to aim a lot higher than England when looking for good ideas to influence innovation here. There are excellent examples of evidence-based interventions elsewhere in the world that can improve the quality of teaching. We need to look up, not down, we can’t be complacent, and we shouldn’t let the empire strike back.
Viv Ellis is Dean of the Faculty of Education at Monash University. His latest book (with Lauren Gatti and Warwick Mansell), The New Political Economy of Teacher Education: The Enterprise Narrative and the Shadow State, will be published by Policy Press in 2022.