The two documents which purport to define a good teacher: obviousness of a tricky kind

For forty years I was a classroom teacher and a head teacher.  I recruited hundreds of teachers, observed thousands of lessons and I am confident I know what good teaching looks like.  As Jonathan Smith, the former head of English at Tonbridge School, once said, the characteristics of good teaching are pretty obvious, but it is ‘obviousness of a tricky kind.’   Easily stated, but harder to implement.

In 2019 I was asked to take on running teacher training at The University of Buckingham, where we typically have 1200 students.  Despite the fact that Buckingham is an independent University I soon discovered that central government controlled the main teacher training qualification (called ‘a status’) in England, the Qualified Teacher Training course.  The University was required to assess those who wish to teach against two documents, one called the Teachers’ Standards and the other called the Core Content Framework.  The latter document is an elaboration of the former.  The University does not award the qualification – we assess the students and if we feel they have adequately shown they are competent in each Teachers’ Standard we inform the Department for Education and they award the QTS.

Teachers’ Standards are not a new thing – the first serious government attempt to regulate ITT was in 1984 when they were included in DES Circular 3/84.  Immediately before 2011 there were five booklets of Teachers’ Standards each with dozens of standards and all tied to the pay and conditions of teachers – one for core (41 standards), one for QTS, one for post-threshold teachers, one for excellent teachers and one for advanced skills teachers. It is not a surprise that the 2010 coalition government wanted to simplify them.

So what are the 2011 Teachers’ Standards?  If you want to read them just Google it.  They a sensible list of some of the key qualities of good teachers.  The current Teachers’ Standards were written by a committee convened by the Schools’ Minister Nick Gibb. Sally Coates was the chair but remitted the actual writing to a much smaller sub-committee, chaired by Roy Blatchford.  Two of the key people on this sub-committee were Professor Anthony O’Hear, who set up the School of Education at the University of Buckingham with the Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Chris Woodhead, and John McIntosh, the distinguished former head of the London Oratory School.

The great thing about the Teachers’ Standards is that there are only eight of them and they fit onto one side of A4.  The eight standards have bullet points under each but interestingly the preamble to the standards says ‘The bulleted subheadings should not be interpreted as separate standards in their own right but should be used by those assessing trainees and teachers to track progress against the standard, to determine areas where additional development might need to be observed, or to identify areas where a trainee or teacher is already demonstrating excellent practice relevant to that standard.’  

In 2019, the year I started at Buckingham, the Core Content Framework (CCF) was published.  Professor Sam Twiselton from Sheffield Hallam University was the chair of the group who wrote it for the DfE.  Other members included good people such as John Blake (now at the Office for Students), Emma Hollis of NASBTT (National Association of School-Based Teacher Trainers) and James Noble Rogers from UCET (Universities’ Council for the Education of Teachers).

What is the CCF for?  It is defined as a ’minimum entitlement for trainee teachers and places a duty on providers of initial teacher training – and their partner schools – to meet this entitlement.’  So it is the core syllabus for teacher training.

The CCF is very clear that all the statements they make have research evidence behind them and have been approved by the Education Endowment Foundation.  The EEF is a government-sponsored organisation that does research into ‘what works’ in schools and publishes a useful teacher toolkit.

The CCF is really an attempt to elaborate on the Teachers’ Standards and to include some of the more recent research, in particular the findings of neuroscience.  In itself it is a good document.

It also says ‘While the ITT Core Content Framework is presented around the Teachers’ Standards for clarity, the ITT Core Content Framework is not, and should not be used, as an assessment framework. Trainee teachers will not be expected to collect evidence against the ITT Core Content Framework, and they will continue to be assessed against the Teachers’ Standards only.’   That has not always happened – some trainee teachers are assessed at some point against the CCF.

Since September 2020 all courses offered by teacher training ‘providers’ in England have had to be ‘aligned’ to the CCF.  This has been tested by Ofsted through its inspections.

In 2021 the government announced that everyone who wished to offer courses leading to QTS from September 2024 would need to apply for reaccreditation.  It was made clear that close adherence to the CCF was a necessary element of a successful application.  In 2022 and 2023 those who had been accredited were told to submit four examples of materials they might use for trainees and mentors as a way of further demonstrating they were closely following the CCF.  Anything which went beyond the CCF would require research evidence to back it up.

Ofsted published a new framework for inspecting teacher training in 2020.  This makes the statement thatThe teachers’ standards provide an end-point assessment for QTS… They are not a curriculum.’  They ask that the CCF is addressed in its entirety.

In the preamble the CCF says ‘The ITT Core Content Framework does not set out the full ITT curriculum for trainee teachers. The complexity of the process for becoming a teacher cannot be overestimated and it remains for individual providers to design curricula appropriate for the subject, phase and age range that the trainees will be teaching.’

That is an important caveat of course.  But once you define a teaching training syllabus in a DfE document and you learn that you will be both inspected and accredited (or not) against it, that document becomes the syllabus.  Other very important things, such as subject and age phase, take second place, whatever the intentions of the authors of the CCF.

In May 2022 the draft initial teacher training criteria for September 2024 were published.  They include the statement ‘All accredited ITT providers must design an evidence-based, sequenced curriculum which explicitly delivers all aspects of the ITT Core Content Framework…’  So the CCF document was the de facto curriculum, no ifs or buts.

The story of teacher training follows the trajectory pursued by central government since at least 1980 – increased control by the DfE.  Sometimes government ministers, like Nick Gibb, have well developed ideas of their own.  Often they rely on a small group of advisers they believe in – like the authors of the Teachers’ Standards and the CCF.

As someone who has come late to teacher training but has had the opportunity to visit many schools and observe many lessons I have come to the following conclusions:

  1. Ofsted requires teacher trainers to teach primary trainees 13 subjects. This is both impossible to do and wrong.   The standard of teaching in primary schools would be greatly improved if more of the teachers were specialists, not least in maths and modern languages which are quite often taught badly.
  2. Both the Teachers’ Standards and the CCF are good up to a point but fail to distinguish between primary and secondary, even though the methods used for teaching younger children are very different to the methods used with teenagers. Ofsted makes the same mistake in their framework.  Of course certain things can be of equally true of young and older children, such as the need to maintain good behaviour, but the methods employed are really very different.  The Teachers’ Standards and CCF are largely orientated to secondary schools.  Ofsted made this error with its Curriculum Research Reviews.  They are excellent but  mainly relevant to secondary schools, as the authors of the reviews will attest.  Primary teachers are trained to teach thirteen subjects.  Secondary teachers are trained to teach one subject. They are fundamentally different.
  1. The Teachers’ Standards, Core Curriculum Framework and Ofsted inspection framework do not adequately acknowledge that different subjects require different teaching methods. Much of what is true of secondary maths teaching is not true of secondary art teaching.
  2. There is inadequate emphasis placed on subject knowledge. It has been firmly established by research that one of the most important characteristics of good teachers is subject knowledge and of course this point is made in the Teachers’ Standards and the CCF.  But if it is that important, it would be good to have a bit of detail and it would seem important that trainees should be tested on their subject knowledge.
  3. It is perfectly possible for someone to tick all the boxes of the Teachers’ Standards and achieve QTS without being a very good teacher. That is because they only have to reach a minimum standard and because the Teachers’ Standards are just a basic shopping list.  You may go to Tesco and buy the ingredients, but it requires a decent recipe and some acquired skills to make a good meal.  The essential characteristics of a good teacher – subject knowledge and an energetic, persuasive personality, for example, are not really measured by the QTS.  The Teachers’ Standards and the CCF are a good list but they are not adequate in themselves.

One of the Teachers’ Standards is ‘high expectations’.  We all know what high                expectations means – it means setting the bar quite high for all pupils.  You expect them to work hard and do well in tests.  But the key point about high expectations is what you do about a pupil who gets 9 out of 20 in a test, or even 14 out of 20.  If you have high expectations the next step is to ask the pupil to resit the test and to carry on resitting until they reach your bar.  That will require time set aside to do the retest and possibly time to reteach some of the trickier work.  It is the crucial step, the step which distinguishes the most dedicated teachers from the rest.  It is the step which will make the difference between success and failure for weaker pupils.  Simply saying ‘teachers should have high expectations’ is not wrong in itself, but what really matters and what is unspecified is how that aspiration works in practice.  This is an example of obviousness of a tricky kind.

Teacher training in England is on the whole pretty good.  It is guided by the two documents described above and regularly inspected by Ofsted.  But greater emphasis on the age of the pupils and the subject being taught would make it even better.  Control by the DfE and Ofsted is only good up to a point.  The CCF is a valuable checklist, but teacher trainers need to offer courses which go much further and are much better than this document.

By Professor Barnaby Lenon

Dean of Education, University of Buckingham

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