I must begin on a positive. The whole profession has been crying out for years that the training period teachers have is not sufficient – indeed, one of my very first blog posts, back in 2013, was on this very issue. The good news is that the government has just opened a consultation on creating a more structured training programme for new teachers that goes beyond a single year. The details on this will of course be what matters, particularly if we are to avoid this just becoming a rebranding of NQT induction, but the overall direction is nevertheless a good one.
In this post, however, I want to use this development to raise a concern. The concern I have is with the Teachers’ Standards, the set of criteria that we use to judge whether someone is eligible for Qualified Teacher Status. At present we just have one set of standards, but the new model under consultation suggests having two set: one that has to be met by the end of the first training year (QTS(P)), and another ‘more robust’ set that has to be met by the end of the second training year (QTS). This carries the clear implication of ‘progression’ from one to the other: the second set of standards will have to assess a higher level of proficiency than the first set.
Before going any further, I am assuming that readers of this post are already familiar with the criticisms that exist of using descriptive criteria to measure ‘progress’ (i.e. getting better at something). If you are not, then a very quick introduction is this blog post by Daisy Christodoulou, and you can read a greater elaboration on the ideas there in her book Making Good Progress.
In a nutshell, there are two intractable problems with descriptive criteria. The first is that they are subjective and require interpretation to be used in practice: given that criteria are supposed to help provide a common shared meaning beyond specific contexts, this is a problem, although one that can be mitigated to some extent by moderation and sharing examples. The second is that they rely heavily on verbs that then have to be modified in order to show progression towards and beyond the criterion. For example, one bullet point in Teachers’ Standard 2 states:
- be aware of pupils’ capabilities and their prior knowledge…
What does it look like when someone gets better at this thing. Should it be the case that, at the end of their training year, we want trainees to ‘be aware of pupils’ capabilities’, and that at the end of their NQT year they are ‘more aware of pupils’ capabilities’? How can you distinguish between ‘aware’ and ‘more aware’. Or do we say that, in the first year, teachers are “starting to be aware of pupils’ capabilities” and that this ‘starting’ has come to an end by their second year?
If this sounds comic, then that’s because it is, although tragically so in that this is something that ITE providers have had to do for years. Ofsted requires that ITE providers demonstrate that the majority of trainees exceed the Teachers’ Standards. This means that providers have been forced to produce progression models that take the Standards and imagine what a harder version of each standard looks like. Here is a very typical example – I am not mentioning which provider it is, as this is not intended to be a criticism of providers, but rather the system under which they operate.
As you read across from right to left, you can see the attempts to define ‘progress’ (i.e. ‘getting better at teaching’). As you read through, keep in mind that someone has to use these criteria to judge a trainee, someone has to moderate that judgement, and a trainee will get a number telling him or her how good they are at teaching. So what does this ‘getting better’ look like? Let’s take a look at the first bullet point, which moves from:
- take some responsibility
- assume responsibility
- assume a high-level of responsibility
What it means to ‘take responsibility’ is already a fairly vague notion, but this is exacerbated by then requiring assessors to distinguish between ‘responsibility’ and ‘high-level of responsibility’. Let’s take another example. Trainees are supposed to go from:
- They support pupils in reflecting on their learning and identifying their progress and emerging learning needs.
- They regularly provide pupils with the opportunity to reflect on their own learning and use this, along with other forms of assessment, to inform their future planning and teaching.
- They actively promote engaging and effective methods that support pupils in reflecting on their learning.
Keep in mind that the difference between the first bullet point and the third here is, supposedly, the difference between an ‘Outstanding’ trainee and one that ‘Requires Improvement’. I do not want to labour the point, but take a look at this example from Teachers’ Standard 2:
- They are astutely aware of their own development needs in relation to extending and updating their subject, curriculum and pedagogical knowledge in their early career and have been proactive in developing these effectively during their training.
- They are critically aware of the need to extend and update their subject, curriculum and pedagogical knowledge and know how to employ appropriate professional development strategies to further develop these in their early career.
Is someone who is ‘astutely aware’ doing better or worse than someone who is ‘critically aware’? How do we decide that someone has been sufficiently ‘proactive’?
These issues are now well-known in assessing children in different subjects in school, although the system as a whole is really only beginning to develop ways to move on from the limitations of descriptive criteria. It would, however, be a great irony if we adopted a system of assessing teachers that is based on a flawed assessment model that those very same teachers are moving away from when teaching children.
So here is the problem. We are about to move to a situation where we have two sets of Teachers’ Standards: one for the end of the first training year and one for the end of the second training year. The latter will need to demonstrate ‘progress’ from the former. A group of intelligent and experienced people will be sitting down in a meeting room in the DfE to write them. And then these will be launched for providers and schools across the land to use.
My question is: how can this group avoid falling foul of the inherent problems associated with using descriptive criteria? I have seen group after group of intelligent, knowledgeable and experienced history teachers hit a brick wall in this process. A brief search for ITE grading criteria will show that groups of intelligent, knowledgeable and experienced teacher educators have also hit brick walls, of which the example in this blog post is typical. This all suggests to me that our problems here do not stem from a lack of intelligence, knowledge or experience. If it were possible to use generic descriptive criteria to model progress, then I think we surely would by now have worked out how to do it.
I think, rather, that the problem here is that the very model itself does not work.