The marketization of teacher education in England

Geoff Whitty

Geoff Whitty

Geoff Whitty, Professor of Public Sector Policy and Management at the University of Bath, and former Director of the Institute of Education, University of London, spoke recently at Teachers College about the marketization of teacher education in England, and in the U.S.  As he explained, the deregulation and “branding” of professionalism will have serious consequences for the future of university-based teacher education. In the following interview with Deirdre Faughey, Whitty describes the current status of teacher education in England, the debates surrounding deregulation, and how the situation in England compares with other countries.

Could you describe the current debates over the deregulation of teacher education in England?

What appears to be happening is two things. One is some teachers will no longer have to be certified through conventional training routes because our academy schools, known as charter schools in the U.S., are exempted from the requirement to employ what we call qualified, what you call certified, teachers. 63% of all secondary schools, and a growing number of primary schools, are becoming academies or charters. “Free schools” is another term we use for some of them. So, potentially there’s a situation where there’s no requirement for the teacher to get qualified. At the moment most of these schools employ qualified teachers but they won’t have to in the future. The second thing is there’s a growth in alternative routes into certification and qualification. The traditional route of university-led courses involves a university setting up a course, getting approval from national government, and working in partnership with schools to train teachers usually in a one-year post-graduate training course. Since the mid-1990s, there has been a growth in alternative routes. In the mid-90s it was about 2% of teachers trained that way, by 2010 it was about 20%. Some of these routes are school-based postgraduate qualifications, so the school designs the course and then gains certification from a university. Some of them are things like our equivalent of Teach for America, which we call Teach First, and some of them are employment-based routes, where people train while they are working in a vacant position in a school and while they are working they gain qualified teacher status, but not necessarily a university qualification.

Now, what the government has done recently is to combine the school-led route and the employment-based route, into something called School Direct, which they want to grow to 50% of all teachers by 2015, and they want to make sure that schools are in the lead and that it’s up to schools to decide whether they involve universities in the training they offer and/or offering a university qualification as well as qualified teacher status.

So, to sum that up you’ve got two things. One is deregulation of entry into the teacher workforce, the other is more competition or marketization of training routes. Now, the debate is really about whether the long-term plan on the part of government is to exclude universities effectively either from any involvement or simply to put them into a subsidiary position where they are serving the schools.

The other thing that’s happening is that academy chains, the equivalent to charter Central Management Organizations (CMOs), are setting up their own teacher training programs either with university certification or not. And that means a sort of privatization. It’s possible that companies like Pearson will enter the field on a for-profit basis.

The other part of the debate is that universities say that this is a “dumbing-down” of training, it will be absolutely focused to the specific needs of specific schools, or specific groups of schools, making it what I’ve called “branded” professionalism.  And they will not give trainee teachers the broader professional literacy – understanding the system, understanding how schooling interacts with social circumstances, that has traditionally been part of university provision, alongside practical training in the schools. So, it’s not entirely the case that in universities people are being taught chunks of theory and then got into schools and found no connection, which is how Conservative government ministers like to present it. It’s more that work in the schools is contextualized in a broader understanding of education policy and practice.

Is part of the debate the question of whether or not teachers need to know any of that broader context?

Indeed, and there are some neo-liberal politicians who say that teacher training actually makes teachers worse, partly by filling their heads with all sorts of irrelevant theory, and partly by teaching them that children from poor families can’t do well using poverty as an excuse. What university people would say is that poverty can’t be used as an excuse, but it is a reason why it’s sometimes more challenging to teach a child coming from a certain background compared with another, and if you don’t understand that context and you try and just employ formulaic approaches that are not sensitive to individual needs and social needs then you are unlikely to be successful. You are also unlikely to be able to move from one school to another, from one context to another, because what works in one situation may not work in another. If you haven’t got a more conceptual understanding – not just of what works, but of why it works and why it works in some circumstances and not others – then you have a restricted professionality rather than the wider professional literacy that university courses have traditionally provided.

And is part of the concern how you determine what works, and how you know if something is working?

There are different approaches to that. Some of the critics of teacher training will say that you pick it up, you learn it on the job, it’s intuitive. Some will say you can get formulae, you can learn what works and things like the What Works Clearinghouse here, or the Educational Endowment Foundation in the UK, provide toolkits for teachers. University people tend to say neither of those things is unhelpful in itself, but unless you understand and can reflect on why this toolkit worked for you, rather than another, then you’re not a professional in the broader sense of being able to go into a situation, sum it up, draw on all your resources – academic, experiential, and so on – to make a decision. Without that teaching is a craft and not a profession. Our senior government minister for education is very clear it is a craft, so they wouldn’t necessarily see that as a criticism. But to those who want to see education as a profession, and regard it as a profession, it is as very much about individuals able to make judgments on the basis of a combination of broader academic understandings and experience.

How does what is happening in England now compare to what is happening in other parts of the world?

Nearly all countries in the world are pushing – as are OECDMcKinsey and so on – raising teacher quality. The difference is both in how you define teacher quality, and the best way of achieving it. There are very few countries that are going in the direction of wholesale deregulation, the teaching-as-a–craft approach, but there are many countries, including the US, where the idea of clinical practice is being developed, involving more school-based practice than they have had in traditional university courses. In some countries that is the equivalent of school-based teacher training in England, in others it is more based on the clinical medical education model where it is research-based clinical practice.

The other parallel, with the US particularly, is that there is a degree of deregulation, in that charter schools in some states, like English academies and free schools, don’t have to employ qualified teachers, in that alternative routes have more restricted requirements in some states than in others, and in the casual way in which  the concept of “highly qualified” teacher in NCLB is sometimes interpreted.

The third parallel is that some charters, and charter CMOs, seem to be setting up alternative routes to certification. The big controversial provider at the moment is the Relay Graduate School of Education, which you have here in New York and is now spreading to other parts of the US.

So, there are parallels, but I think nowhere is going as far as England – not even other parts of the UK. I don’t think many places would say teaching is a craft rather than a profession, they just say there are different definitions of professionality and different ways of achieving it.

For more information about a current inquiry into the role of research in teacher education please visit the British Educational Research Association website or email

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