Teaching Schools – an outsider’s (possibly flawed) impression

Earlier this week I attended a BELMAS event in London about teaching schools. It’s been a while since I‘ve been at an event like this and I really enjoyed it.  Why did I go? We often look across the border with a measure of fear and trepidation, observing the paradox of rapid pace of change and a seemingly reactionary approach to curricular reform, so it’s interesting to find out more about this change. It’s not directly relevant to my practice, but as my study is about how teachers learn in practice – I want to be aware of a wider perspective on how this is developing, not only in Scotland. It’s very much an emergent policy at the moment; it clearly has some supporters and evangelists, and some critics. Even within this there are aspects which are supported or criticised more than others. So what are teaching schools and how do they work?

Teaching schools or teaching school alliances are designated networks of schools who take responsibility for teacher education, both initial teacher training and CPD. They can be single or multiple school alliances and their partners must involve a Higher Education Institute. They need to be deemed outstanding by the inspectorate (Ofsted) to be able to apply for this status. The status is designated by the National College, who have a role in developing and supporting these school alliances. Student teachers must apply through UCAS and then various routes are available to them (Schools, Direct, Teach First) to get their qualification. Schools and the HEIs are funded to take on students. The financial costs and incentives in applying/becoming a teaching school alliance are not clear to me – there are definitely market-forces at work here, but I’m not sure exactly how they work.

There are six main priorities that these schools are tasked with. These are

  1. Leading development of a school led ITT system (they still call it teacher training in England, whereas in Scotland we tend to use the term teacher education. Nicer in lots of ways, I think).
  2. Lead peer-peer development
  3. Identify and develop leadership potential
  4. Provide support for other schools
  5. Designate and broker Specialist Leaders of Education (SLEs)
  6. Research and development

As a policy, the intention is clearly to decentralise power to schools, but not all schools, only the ones deemed outstanding by the inspectorate. John Stephens from the National College said that there will be an “irrevocable shift [of power]” from the centre to schools by 2016. These schools/networks have massive autonomy. As various speakers through the day demonstrated, they can develop their own leadership programmes and planned joint or shared practice development across schools; they have the freedom to collaboratively plan e.g. an inter- school collaborative enquiry with the help and support of a HEI partner; organise secondments or job exchanges within their alliances; run accredited masters’ level CPD sessions; they can also grow their own teachers.Capture

There are clear opportunities for a different way of “knowledge mobilisation” within the system: a long-standing problem for educators and policy-makers. Prof Chris Husbands suggested   the teaching schools model might provide a way to create –understand–share and then act on knowledge in practice? This would represent a significant “paradigm shifting innovation” (as opposed to a “consensual innovation” which I think we are quite good at in Scotland. Is an innovation that has been arrived at by consensus really an innovation? (Question for another day perhaps).

Some elements of this are appealing, others raise interesting questions. Professor Chis Husbands observed that in spite of the fact that the National Colleges sees this as a “government-neutral” initiative i.e. it will have a lifespan longer than that of the current government, few policy intentions ever really embed themselves. He questioned the desirability of the “irrevocable shift” and the medical schools analogy upon which the model is supposedly based. There has been a fair amount written about the medical/educational comparison, and I don’t want to go into this too much here, but some scholars (Gert Biesta, for example) expose it as a fundamentally flawed analogy, (as does Chris Husbands) and justify the argument around “being a student is not an illness just as teaching is not a cure” ( Biesta 2007, p8).

Sustainability of the system is also under scrutiny: both in terms of finances and support, but also the vulnerability schools are exposed to by the compulsory “outstanding” rating. If this changes for any reason (in the lead school), be that staff movement, absence or refocused priorities then the system could collapse, and this will impact all schools in the alliance, not just the one with the less favourable Ofsted rating.

There are tensions and paradoxes in this concept, but it clearly has strengths and appeal. The one overwhelming impression I was left with at the end of the day was the pervasiveness of Ofsted in all discourse around teaching schools. There is a clear accountability agenda underpinning all of this, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but when an evidently able, experienced, energising and dynamic executive leader of a school alliance demonstrated some very impressive work (and difficult challenges too) carried out inside this framework, then summarised it by commenting that “you’re only as good as your last set of Ofsted data,” I felt disappointed. Is that really the best we can aspire to for young people? I hope teaching schools can do better than that.

BIESTA, G., 2007. WHY ” WHAT WORKS” WON’T WORK : EVIDENCE-BASED PRACTICE AND THE DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT IN EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH. Educational Theory, 57(1), pp. 1-22.

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About catrionao

I'm a lecturer at UWS and a PhD student at Stirling University, studying a school based practice of teacher professional learning.
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