Time to protect teacher training

Biologists should be very concerned by proposed changes to teacher education in the UK – and should make their voices heard, writes Professor Mark Winterbottom

February 21st 2022

In England at present an intense debate is raging about teacher education, triggered by a set of reform proposals[1] announced in July last year by the UK Government. Questions have been asked in parliament, reports discussed by other parliamentary groups and a debate held in the House of Lords. There have been over 70 articles in the national and education specialist media.

The Government argues that its reforms will improve teacher training, but stakeholders’ responses to the proposals are almost unanimously critical. Collectively they represent almost the entire spectrum of teacher education providers, as well as other organisations with an interest in the field. They include learned societies, subject associations, teacher and headteacher unions, and teacher education providers, including both school-based and university providers.

The proposals would prescribe what trainee teachers should learn, and when/how they should learn it. I believe that for many providers this would restrict their ability to provide a flexible, innovative curriculum tailored to trainees’ needs and adapted to their local context.

A number of universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, have made it clear that implementation of the proposals may force them to withdraw from teacher education. More broadly, the proposals have been labelled by the Universities’ Council for the Education of Teachers (UCET) as a threat to the continuation of university-based teacher education as a whole.

The UCET says teacher education should produce teachers who are competent, thoughtful and confident professionals “who act as independent thinkers, recognising that knowledge, policy and practice are contestable, provisional and contingent” – and are predisposed “to be continually intellectually curious about their work, with the capacity to be innovative, creative and receptive to new ideas emerging from their individual or collaborative practitioner enquiries”.

Responses to the UK Government’s proposals say much the same thing. They reiterate that teaching should be an intellectual, postgraduate profession, within which teachers build professional criticality that equips them to make informed professional decisions every day. Teachers should learn from, and ideally contribute to, research, there being strong evidence that ‘research-rich’ schools and colleges underpin the world’s best education systems.

Research and scholarship require specialist knowledge. Biology teachers need knowledge of their subject, their discipline and of how to build and assess students’ developing understanding in biology in particular. Universities are important in building such knowledge, and indeed in generating the body of educational research that contributes to it (the RSB itself hosts the Biology Education Research Group, which is made up of academics from UK universities). Universities also induct new teachers into the tools and traditions that enable them to undertake research into their own practice, reflect critically on that practice and build autonomy as teachers, making their own contributions to codified professional and academic knowledge.

It is important that biologists and biology teachers make their voices heard in such debates. I think we would all agree at the very least that government should not be prescribing university curricula. A good starting point for the RSB is to assert what we value in biology teacher education and the role of universities in delivering those values.

Without universities, teaching and teacher education are diminished. Without research, teaching and teacher education are impoverished. And without professional autonomy, teaching and teacher education are reduced to ‘one size fits all’ approaches that ossify the profession and through it the educational experience of future generations.

Mark Winterbottom FRSB is an associate professor in science education at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge.