Leaders in higher education said this week they believed the government was trying to push universities out of teacher training for political reasons because ministers thought their education departments were “hotbeds of leftwing intellectualism” and full of “Marxists”.
Under changes announced last summer, all initial teacher training providers in England must be re-accredited by the Department for Education to continue educating teachers from 2024. However, two-thirds of providers, including some top universities, were told this month that they had failed the first round of the new accreditation process. The DfE said last week that just 80 providers, out of 216 who are understood to have applied, had made the cut.
Those currently out in the cold include some from the prestigious Russell Group. The University of Nottingham, a member of the elite group, said it was “very disappointed and perplexed” to have been failed only two months after Ofsted rated it as outstanding, with inspectors praising the “exceptional curriculum taught by experts”.
The University of Birmingham, which the DfE has chosen as one of the specialist partners for its new school-based National Institute of Teaching, also failed the first round of accreditation.
The head of one university that failed, who asked not to be named for fear of deterring applicants, said: “Our staff involved in teacher education, who are excellent, were devastated by not being successful. They find it hard to believe because of our track record.”
The DfE has said providers can reapply, but experts say some big universities are so outraged they may walk away from teacher training altogether, exacerbating fears about teacher shortages in many subjects. Cambridge University did not apply for the accreditation due to fears its curriculum would be compromised.
Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “This was the brainchild of [former schools minister] Nick Gibb, who was obsessed with the idea that university departments of teacher education were hotbeds of leftwing intellectualism. I told him I didn’t know how to convey my frustration that he was coming out with this rubbish.”
Prof David Spendlove, associate dean of Manchester University’s faculty of humanities and former head of initial teacher education, said: “As education secretary, Michael Gove talked about fighting ‘the Blob’ [the education establishment]. He and Nick Gibb had this idea that universities and teacher education departments were all Marxists. Their influence hasn’t gone away.”
Manchester passed the accreditation, but Prof Spendlove believes the new process is “damaging the very bedrock” of university teacher education and it is now “harder to stay in it than to leave”.
“People who have been doing this for a very long time are being told they aren’t fit for purpose, despite all the positive inspections they’ve been through. That’s a farce,” he said.
Prof David Green, vice-chancellor of Worcester University, which has a strong focus on teacher education, said: “Gibb had a clear agenda to remove universities from teacher training. Some officials may have remained faithful to his outdated perspective.”
He said: “This new DfE system risks destroying much existing high quality teacher training. That would be a disaster for children who will be recovering from the educational devastation wrought by the pandemic for years.”
Prof Spendlove said no university should celebrate its success in the first round, arguing that the next stage of the accreditation process, which focuses on the curriculum, means losing autonomy over what is taught. “It involves increased scrutiny of the content of courses and a review of curriculum materials, which is utterly bizarre,” he said. “The DfE is hoping people will be so desperate to pass they will just roll over and accept it.”
This idea is worrying to many universities. Cambridge, which had more than 250 teaching entrants this year and is rated outstanding by Ofsted, said its decision not to apply was because of concerns about the government’s “highly prescribed curriculum” and its model of mentoring, both of which it said “do not look at all like what we do”.
Bousted said: “Universities are right to fear the DfE trying to control their teaching curriculum. That is what is happening.”
Teaching unions have been warning for many months that forcing providers to jump through new bureaucratic hoops risks damaging the supply of teachers. Teacher training applications are down 24% on last year after a brief Covid boom, with recruitment dropping below pre-pandemic levels.
A report by the National Foundation for Educational Research in March said that a large range of secondary subjects would not meet teacher recruitment targets in 2022. These include shortage subjects such as physics, maths, chemistry and computing, but also those that typically recruit well such as English, biology and geography.
Prof Chris Husbands, the vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, whose initial teacher training provision passed the first round of accreditation, said: “I think this is indeed intended to drive some providers out of the market. But the risk the government runs is driving out some of the people they should be aiming to keep.”
He said universities were committed to teacher training “but not at any cost”. “Large organisations always have choices,” he said. “I don’t really understand why the government is picking this fight. The evidence from Ofsted inspections shows the sector is in pretty good shape. This doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Nottingham was the first university to confirm publicly that it did not pass through the first round of accreditation. The news was met with anger in the sector.
Green described the decision as “simply ludicrous”, coming so soon after Ofsted rated all aspects of Nottingham’s teacher education as outstanding.
John Dexter, who was director of education at Nottingham city council until February and spent more than 30 years in teaching and school management in the city, tweeted that he was “baffled, cross and frustrated” about the result.
He said: “It’s extraordinary. Getting an outstanding from Ofsted on ITT [initial teacher training] is pretty impressive.” He said the Nottingham course was good for helping students to understand the environment they would be teaching in. “I really don’t understand why the DfE is doing this.”
The government announced on Thursday, after a year-long contract dispute thought to have cost hundreds of thousands, that its National Institute of Teaching would open in September 2023, led by a consortium of four school trusts called the School Led Development Trust.
The DfE was approached for comment.