Jonathan Gullis is MP for Stoke-on-Trent North.
The great conservative education reforms of the last decade have seen us raise standards on behalf of pupils and parents.
We have freed failing schools from the grips of local authority control, handing powers to transformative multi-academy trusts. The phonics revolution means more than nine in ten children are reading fluently by age seven. And we have restored rigour and academic discipline to schools, ensuring children leave school equipped with the cultural capital that is their rightful inheritance.
And at almost every stage, unions and entrenched interest groups have opposed our successful reforms.
Take phonics, for example. England achieved its highest-ever ranking in the international literacy league tables thanks to Nick Gibb’s phonics reforms. But in 2011, the teaching unions and Labour were implacably opposed. Have we ever heard retractions from Mary Bousted, Lisa Nandy and their co-signatories to this letter opposing the introduction of the phonics test as ‘of benefit to no one’?
This is just one more example of the unions acting in a clearly politicised manner. The latest and most egregious example of this obstructionist attitude came during the pandemic, when the National Education Union, as led by Bousted and Kevin Courtney, acted against the interests of children and parents to make home learning harder and to prevent schools opening.
The last unreformed area of the school system is teacher training – but not for long.
Earlier this year, the Prime Minister announced 500,000 teacher training programmes would be delivered this Parliament, significantly raising the quality of teaching in schools. Important reforms are already being delivered, providing in-school training for teachers in the first two years in the classroom, as well as specialist training for more experienced teachers looking to progress in their careers. These reforms are instilling rigour into teacher CPD, mirroring the successful curriculum reforms of the last decade.
The final frontier is initial teacher training – most often a year-long PGCE. Despite some reforms at the beginning of the last decade, this introduction to teaching remains stubbornly in the grips of unreformed university education departments. Schools do now play a greater role in teacher training, but more than four in five would-be teachers must jump through the hoops of university education departments before beginning their careers.
Prior to my eight years in teaching, I did my own PGCE at the Institute of Education. Too often, training is low-quality and riddled with ideology. Would-be teachers expecting to learn how to deal with unruly pupils and how to inspire a passion for their subject are instead expected to regurgitate ideological mumbo-jumbo in their essays. Ideological induction over, they are then left to sink or swim in the classroom. There is far too little practical training.
That is why the Government’s consultation on the review of initial teacher training is so welcome. The reforms would guarantee would-be teachers a trained in-school mentor, at least 38 weeks of training, and an intensive four-week placement – as part of 28 weeks in schools – designed to hone and refine key classroom skills. The government’s expert group report can be read in full here.
As an ex-teacher I have to say I can find very little to disagree with. In a shocking development, even Bousted and the other teaching union leaders accept there is merit to these reforms. And yet, the teaching unions and their allies in university education departments have been fuming since the Government launched its consultation a fortnight ago.
The reason: the most important component of the reforms is the requirement for all initial teacher training providers to be reaccredited. In exchange for the almost £10k per trainee they charge, the Government believes teacher training institutions should have to prove they are delivering the reasonable minimum quality requirements set out by their review.
The new requirement puts the Government on the side of trainee teachers, pupils and taxpayers, demanding a modest minimum quality of training in exchange for generous funding. Predictably, the education blob is howling once again, with the usual set of hysterical claims that accompany every challenge to the status quo.
According to the teaching unions the mere fact of consulting on these reforms risks teacher supply. And rather than being what teacher training should at its core be about, requiring universities to provide basic behaviour management and pedagogical training is a threat to academic freedom – according to university education departments.
The truth is far more mundane. The gravy train of taxpayer-funded ideological training is at an end, as it should be. From now on, training will have to serve the trainee and their future pupils. But these are typically moderate and sensible conservative reforms that put government on the side of people and taxpayers, rowing back on the prevailing ideological orthodoxy of unions and universities.