TEF and the importance of teachers

In all of his thinking and discussions about how to improve the quality of teaching in universities, I wonder if Jo Johnson has found time to speak to Andrew Adonis or Michael Gove? I ask because both have tried to answer that question for the quality teaching in schools. Both introduced or accelerated a barrage of metrics and rankings – from GCSE performance and Ofsted gradings alongside various institutional incentives and flexibilities too. Both also wanted to increase the attractiveness of teaching as a career and encourage the best university graduates to become teachers. Intriguingly, both also saw the importance of thinking about getting different people into the classroom and letting them evangelise about how much they liked it.

So given the focus on improving teaching and increasing institutional incentives for good teaching in higher education, it is worth considering what they did (and didn’t) try to do? In policy terms there were a raft of green and white papers from Gove’s ‘the Importance of Teaching’ to any number of initiatives (including Teach First and the Academy programme) launched from Blair’s No 10 or ‘Tony Zoffis’ as the Times Education Supplement used to characterise such policies from Blair and his then education adviser, Andrew Adonis.

Teach First has been at the heart of both their thinking but alongside broader system reform from higher entry qualifications for teacher training and much to universities’ annoyance, real scrutiny (including from Ofsted) and competition amongst teacher training routes. Teach First has mushroomed in size and influence. It’s expensive and relatively small scale – it will never solve teacher supply problems on its own. But it is totemic in its wider influence on ‘policy’ and classroom practice. I have written before about its impact and the spreading of influence as its ‘graduates’ move on to new roles in think tanks, senior civil service positions and into various areas of school leadership too: http://www.guildhe.ac.uk/blog/carter-and-the-unstoppable-teach-first-machine/

But just as influential are grassroots organisations like Research Ed – a movement aiming to build research literacy and awareness at the front line of teaching. Its founder Tom Bennett now runs events through the UK as well as in the US and Australia and is Nicky Morgan’s behaviour ‘Tsar’ advising on teacher training at DFE.
Others are in and out of DFE – though rarely off twitter, social media or various teaching blogs including Daisy Christodolou (@daisychristo) John Blake (@johndavidblake), Laura McInerney (@miss_mcinerney), Tom Bennett (@tombennett71), Jonathan Simons (@PXEducation), Sam Freedman (@samfr), Andrew Old (@oldandrew) and many more besides. Head teachers too are engaging with daily debates on teaching issues such as Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) and @HeadsRoundtable. Follow them all and you’ll see what I mean. From across the political spectrum, they all used to get regular name-checks in Michael Gove’s speeches.

In schools this is fuelling a revolution in thinking and pedagogy. And it’s difficult to know where it will end up. New teachers blog, write and tweet about their experiences. They are excited about what they are doing and what they are learning. They are reflecting, researching and thinking and they are having an enormous impact on education policy. So this isn’t just policy created by ministers or by committees or academics, but by social media and a dynamic exchange of thinking and practice. If we want to improve teaching in universities we might want to take more notice.

What might this mean for universities and how might it contribute to Jo Johnson’s emerging thinking and the consultation about the TEF? As with so much policy thinking, the response of ‘you wouldn’t start from here’ rings out. Flawed datasets, contested links between chosen metrics and what happens inside the classroom and several articles – or leaps – of faith along the way.

So what might translate to HE? Firstly it shows that if teaching is to improve or high standards become more commonplace, then it is going to need wider cultural change as well as top down policy. Even if the TEF develops smoothly and we end up with the right mix of metrics and qualitative data and it finds an effective way of connecting good teaching to fee increases, it may not make any difference at all to the quality of teaching in universities – in the lecture theatre, laboratory, studio or classroom. Worse, it may breed resentment and disaffection rather than dynamism or change amongst those that it intends to promote.

Teach First, Research Ed and social media in a broader technological sense, are all disruptive innovations. Challenging established thinking and practice in staffrooms and classrooms. We might not need to improve the supply of the best graduates into academia (many are already there) but we might want to give them more support and more voice over what happens in the classroom. We might want to understand their career ambitions and what they need to make them better teachers as well as just academics? We might want them to disrupt some of our traditional academic and workplace pedagogy as well as the hierarchies that exist within and across higher education?

Of course there are already teachers, lecturers, researchers – and vice chancellors – engaging in social media debates. There are practitioners and bloggers and sometimes they are also a part of the debates about schools. But it doesn’t feel to me that this has become as influential in classroom practice as in schools yet. Or that either ministers or sector leaders are listening or using them quite as much as they might. If we are going improve teaching in universities or the attractiveness of teaching as a career we will need more than top down institutional incentives, selected metrics and regulatory interventions. We need the enthusiasm and dynamism as well as the disruptive innovation that we see today in schools. We need great teaching and we need great teachers talking about the conditions in which that will happen.

This blog first appeared on Wonkhe in December 2015

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