Digging around in the undergrowth of schools reform in England
Warwick Mansell's news and analysis site
by Warwick Mansell
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Providers of the government’s flagship career development programme for teachers have expressed fury after the Department for Education cancelled at the 11th hour a host of courses they were planning to run from September, in what critics are labelling “extreme centralisation” of policymaking under the schools minister, Nick Gibb.
Civil servants suddenly told leaders of the government’s newly-appointed Teaching School Hubs earlier this month that they were now not being allowed to run professional development courses unless these were aligned with government priorities.
There is also unhappiness that the move is heralding a standardisation of all in-career professional development for teachers across England, with schools forced to use training provided by a small number of DfE-approved providers. These were described angrily as “the government’s mates” by one multi-academy trust chief executive.
Another provided details of a Department for Education email, described in detail below, which underlines the degree of centralisation.
There were signs, however, this week that officials may be struggling to contain a backlash against their move. I was told that a zoom meeting shortly after it was announced featured “absolute vitriol” against the idea from more than 100 people involved with Teaching School Hubs.
Then, this week, officials had to put back the signing-off of revised plans without cancelled courses until after the start of next term, having warned that the “large scale of the task” in reshaping the initiative lay behind the delay.
The news comes with a closely-related reform – to initial teacher education, also allegedly driven by Gibb – already having generated huge controversy this month among educators, as an exhausted education sector heads for its summer break today.
Teaching School Hubs are a revamp – reportedly at reduced cost – of the government’s Teaching Schools initiative.
The latter was launched under David Cameron’s coalition government back in 2010, with the concept of what was billed as a profession-led approach to building teaching expertise: a white paper that year stating that the initiative would give “outstanding schools the role of leading the training and professional development of teachers and head teachers”.
There were reportedly around 750 Teaching Schools. But by February this year, the initiative had been slimmed down with the announcement that there would be 81 Teaching School Hubs, presiding over training for around 250 schools each on average, in different regions of England.
Back in March, it was reported that the advent of the hubs, which will start their work in September, would mean that the initiative would no longer have a focus on “school improvement”, with this now viewed as the role of academy chains.
But sources say that the government’s new move means that now the hubs will no longer have any role in teachers’ professional development – other than through brokering approved courses on government programmes.
A source who leads a multi-academy trust which is running one of the Teaching School Hubs takes up the story now.
She said: “The remit was to provide outstanding professional development to the region. So we applied, and we got it. There are three different aspects to it. One is all the early career framework stuff; the second one is the NPQs [National Professional Qualifications]; and then the third one was to provide and co-ordinate outstanding professional development for the whole region.
“And that third bit started off as a very big part of it.”
While the first two aspects were linked to government initiatives on teacher progression– tied to its so-called “golden thread” embracing initial teacher training (ITT), the Early Career Framework and NPQs – the third was not. But it was still seen as important as the Teaching School Hubs were announced.
When successful applicants learned in the winter that they had been selected, professional development courses that they oversaw and led were understood to be a key part, with “key performance indicators” (KPIs), against which providers would be held to account by the DfE, focusing on their provision on this aspect.
The government had already started rowing back on this earlier this year, I was told, with independent professional development now being billed by officials as a smaller part of the initiative.
But the hubs nevertheless spent much time organising professional development courses of their own, and sourcing them from independent providers.
Everything changed, however, three weeks ago.
The source said: “And then on Friday [July 2nd], they just said: ‘oh, the ministers have changed the remit and now there is no professional development at all and teaching hubs are not allowed to run any professional development apart from the DfE-approved courses’.
“These are provided by the DfE’s mates. There’s a list of DfE-approved courses.
“But it’s just another example of trying to take the central control.” The source described the move as “extreme centralisation” by the DfE.
The DfE had announced in March the names of organisations – some very familiar to Education Uncovered readers – which would run courses under the Early Career Framework and National Professional Qualifications strands.
The providers – six for the ECF and nine for NPQs – included the Ambition Institute with its multiple links to the DfE, Teach First and UCL Institute of Education, who were all selected for both strands, plus the Harris Federation academy chain, to run NPQs.
My source continued: “The DfE have their own approved courses that they have set up from the centre, and basically, they want everybody just doing their courses, and nobody doing anything which, for example, meets local need.
“And so, on the ECF [DfE’s Early Career Framework], basically they have dictated the curriculum: everybody now follows the same curriculum. On the NPQs, we have had the licence for that for years, and we write the curriculum for that ourselves. Now, everybody follows the same curriculum.”
This source said some of the DfE-approved providers had little experience of the field, and would not necessarily address local needs.
Email underlines centralisation
An email sent to a provider as the shock news came makes the point about the degree of centralisation, as the hubs’ proposed CPD courses approached their final sign-off from the DfE. It appeared that the hubs were not being allowed to do anything which would contradict the approach of the DfE’s own reforms in this field.
The email said: “Since your delivery plans were submitted, we have been through a process of assessing the suitability of the courses proposed in your CPD standard tab. This included engagement with DfE policy teams and the EEF [Education Endowment Foundation] and led to us creating a list of principles that we used to make recommendations to DfE Ministers about which courses should be approved. These principles were as follows:
a CPD must not duplicate, contradict or compete with ECF, NPQs and ITT delivery;
b CPD must not compromise or distract from delivery of ECF, NPQs and ITT;
c CPD must be based on robust evidence and meet the DfE CPD standard;
d CPD must meet a specific need identified in the TSH [Teaching School Hub] region;
e Subject-specific CPD must be approved by or aligned with the relevant [DfE] Curriculum Hub(s);
f The TSH [Teaching School Hubs] approach to improving equality and diversity should be to encourage and support under-represented groups to complete NPQs; and
g The TSH approach to improving teacher workload/well-being should be to direct schools to the [DfE’s] ‘golden thread’ reforms rather than directing schools to training solely designed to reduce workload. We expect teaching and leadership underpinned by the evidence in these reforms to lead to practice that reduces unnecessary workload.”
Below this, the email revealed that the majority of CPD courses proposed to be offered by this provider – a well-known trust with a respected chief executive – had been “removed”.
The email added: “We know that a huge amount of work has gone into these delivery plans, analysis of local CPD need and developing CPD offers, and that, in some cases, this will be disappointing news. There is enormous potential in the golden thread reforms, and we hope therefore that this provides you with the clarity needed to move forwards.”
My source said she believed that Gibb’s professional background had influenced his enthusiasm for standardisation.
She said: “Because he’s a chartered accountant, he knows that if you are going to qualify as a chartered accountant, everybody does the same exams. So if you are going to qualify as a teacher, he wants everyone to do the same exams.”
“It’s all about central control and standardisation across the country: everybody does the same.”
She added: “We spent hundreds of hours setting up, doing a learning needs analysis across [the hub’s] schools, finding out exactly what courses they needed, sourcing those courses, initially having them approved and then last week ‘no – you can’t do it’.”
The source said hub leaders had been apoplectic on learning of the government’s move.
She said: “We had a meeting on the Monday and it’s the first meeting I’ve ever been to on zoom where the people on the meeting just would not let them off. It was absolute vitriol.
“There were over 100 on the call and to be fair to the [DfE officials], they were trying to defend the indefensible and it was difficult for them.”
With such control that Teaching School Hubs were essentially unable to offer their own independently-sourced CPD courses to schools, they are now in the paradoxical position, I was told, of being the only schools in the country not able to do so, as all others could continue to organise their own in-career training to staff if they chose.
Summing up, my source said: “So basically, the remit has changed completely, from the Teaching School Hub that we applied for, which was about providing independently-sourced professional development for the local area, to, now, being an arm of the DfE.”
She added: “I asked the civil servants if there was any chance of it being changed. I was told ‘not unless we get a new minister’. So this has come from Nick Gibb.”
DfE document underlines how approach has changed
A DfE information pack, put together to support a pilot version of the Teaching School Hubs scheme in 2019, may illustrate how the policy has now changed, from what appeared to have been a much more from-the-ground-up/school-led approach to CPD.
The document, aimed at schools considering applying to be part of the pilot, stated: “The applicant should set out its proposed approach to offering CPD to the schools that choose to engage with it covering the full range of needs in the area. TS Hubs should offer each school in its local area the opportunity to discuss how the TS Hub can support its own CPD plans.”
There was a hint that DfE influence might become important, the document adding that successful applicants would need “readiness and capacity to respond to emerging requirements and DfE priorities, such as in relation to the new recruitment and retention strategy (including the Early Career Framework, the new specialised NPQs, and plans to review ITT).”
But a hint was all it was at this stage.
Reacting to the government’s move, a second Teaching School Hub source said: “Government decided that they wanted to replace Teaching Schools, and I think everybody thought that Teaching School Hubs were just going to be large teaching schools.
“Whereas it seems to have changed into a subtle form of ideological change, shall we say. Teaching Schools were all about professional development, but Teaching School Hubs don’t seem to be about professional development. It seems to be more of a rolling out of DfE-approved programmes.
“It seems to me that schools that are designated schools for the Teaching School Hubs aren’t allowed to do certain things because the DfE say you can’t in terms of professional development, but any other school can, across the country.
“The biggest thing from my perspective is that what Teaching School Hubs were promoted to do and what Teaching School Hubs are being asked to do now, they don’t seem to match.
“It’s this idea that they say they want centres of excellence. But they want to control the centres of excellence, they don’t want to allow us all to develop in our own way. It’s all very carefully controlled. It’s very odd.”
This school leader said that the government’s rhetoric about developing a “school-led system” had “disappeared” over the past 18 months. Instead what the profession saw, they said, was a “power grab from the DfE”.
The profession was exhausted from having to deal with covid, and about to break up over the summer, so resistance would be difficult.
But indications that the last-minute nature of the change – and perhaps the reaction from hubs – was having implications for the DfE came with an email to them earlier this week, with news of a delay to aspects of the process.
As of July 2nd, the DfE had said that all hubs would be provided with “feedback” by today (July 23rd) on hub plans which had been amended in light of the government’s changes, which of course had included the removal of independently-commissioned CPD provision.
But the DfE email this week said: “Many thanks for completing your delivery plans. We had very much hoped to respond to you all by signing off all plans by the end of this week, but unfortunately delays to agreements with lead providers and the large scale of the task have meant that we will not be in a position to respond to every Hub by Friday.
“…Therefore we do not feel it is appropriate to finalise delivery plans this side of the summer holiday as you deserve a break from work…you will have until 10th September to return answers to final questions. We would like to thank you…for bearing with us through our teething issues.”
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