Teacher Education in the UK: the peculiarities of the English - and of the Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish!

Author/Producer Professor Ian Menter
Published in Summer Newsletter 2008
Date Published 21 July 2008
Pages 3


This is an edited version of the keynote speech given by Professor Ian Menter at the ESCalate ITE Conference in May 2008


I have a deep interest in Initial Teacher Education that I want to share with you. I believe that through examination of any nation’s approach to ITE we may actually gain wider insight into the whole of that country’s education system and indeed gain even deeper insights into the culture and values that prevail in that nation. I want to:

  1. Encourage interest in and awareness of the power of ‘home international’ comparative studies in teacher education in the UK
  2. Identify some of the key similarities and differences in approaches to ITE across the UK and to offer some tentative explanations for these patterns.

I will start by outlining some features of home international studies before suggesting one theme that characterises UK teacher education as a whole. I will then identify some of the peculiarities in each country – and it is my view that while all four countries may be a bit peculiar the balance of evidence is that England is more peculiar than the others!

Home international comparative studies

The power of home internationals has been well demonstrated by, amongst others, David Raffe at the Centre for Educational Sociology at the University of Edinburgh. Contemporary comparativists are very keen to stress the significance of ‘context sensitivity’ – that is they warn us not to make simplistic comparisons between nations, but always to seek to understand particular phenomena in the context of the history and culture – or histories and cultures – of the societies being examined.

Border skirmishes are part of the history of these islands. Such border skirmishes are no less a feature of teacher education than of other aspects of social and cultural life. One of the issues for Wales has been the numbers of teachers who, upon qualification, seek employment in England. Since devolution this has become a much more loaded issue. And of course there have been issues about school experience for students – whether they should be allowed to cross borders and whether that experience can be recognised as part of an accredited programme or not.

There is also the question of scale in home international studies. Are we comparing like with like? England’s population is more than 25 times that of Northern Ireland’s. England’s 435,000 teachers contrasts with about 50,000 in Scotland. Wales has seven providers of initial teacher education, while ITT in England is provided by 76 Higher Education Institutions, over 60 School-Centre ITT schemes (several of which are in HEIs), numerous Employment Based Routes and Teach First.

Standards in Teacher Education

In ‘standards’ we have a key example of similarity between the nations, albeit with some difference, that is indicative of convergence across the UK. Competence-based models are in operation across the whole UK. ‘Professional standards’ (England and Wales), ‘benchmarks’ (Scotland) or ‘competence statements’ (Northern Ireland). In all four countries the standards broadly address: (1) professional values and practice; (2) professional knowledge and understanding; and (3) professional skills and abilities. These umbrella terms, however, fail to capture the local history of struggle over what constitutes ‘professionalism’ or ‘professionalisation’ in each country.

The TDA documents for England offer a more ‘restricted’ version of professionalism than is evident in the documents of the devolved countries. The English standards do not make explicit reference to the wider community and place an emphasis on beginning teachers’ capacity to interpret and apply the statutory requirements of the National Curriculum.

The peculiarities of the English

At the risk of over simplification, I suggest some headlines that indicate some of the distinctive features of each country, starting with England.

  • Partnership has been very thoroughly developed
  • There is a distinctive diversity of routes of entry (with varying levels of HE involvement)
  • ‘Skills tests’ (in numeracy, literacy and ICT) only exist in England.

The peculiarities of the Scots

  • A guaranteed induction year for newly qualified teachers
  • The opportunity to follow the Chartered Teacher programme after a few years in teaching
  • The GTCS plays a highly significant role in accreditation of programmes as well as in the registration of teachers (though is this maintaining quality or embedding conservatism?)
  • There is not (yet) a system wide approach to partnership.

The peculiarities of the Northern Irish

  • The current provision for teacher education reflects the historic divisions of the society
  • There has been huge demand for student places at the same time as there is an abundance of qualified teachers
  • While the idea of the three I’s (initial, induction, in-service) developed here, it is not reflected in a systemic approach to partnership.

The peculiarities of the Welsh

  • Current developments, with GTC Cymru taking a leading role include a systematic approach to Early Professional Development, with a grant for induction and for CPD
  • A Chartered Teacher scheme pilot
  • Welsh language provision is fundamental in ITT
  • Restructuring and reduction of the number of training places.

Questions emerging from this review

Firstly, the policy context and institutional arrangements in each country appear to be significant. Why is there no TDA or Ofsted outside England? Why does the English GTC have such limited powers, certainly in comparison with Scotland, but also increasingly by comparison with Wales and Northern Ireland? And, in the development of policy on teacher education there appears to be great variation in the extent to which practitioners and researchers are involved.

Secondly, there are questions to be asked about conceptions of teaching as a research-based profession. The RAE has had some invidious divisive effects on education faculties, for example between the old and the new universities and the very small proportion of student teachers who are studying in institutions that receive funding for educational research. There is also a tendency for England to dominate in the research agenda although across all four jurisdictions there is some indication of the (re-)emergence of action research within teacher education.

Thirdly, there is a clear need for more teacher education research – both national and home international but also international. There have been very few large scale studies in recent years, although there has been a growth in small-scale work

Teachers for the 21st Century

What we have in the UK is a kind of education research and development laboratory. The GTCs are working pretty well together and the governments of the three smaller nations also talk to each other quite a lot. In these smaller countries there is a closer sense of community within education, including teacher education. There is a greater sense of trust between politicians, policymakers and practitioners. But there is also a higher standing for state education within these societies, a continuing belief in education as a social good and as a key element in a meritocratic and inclusive democracy (and one might note in passing, less enthusiasm for private education).

Is this an argument for English regionalism – or may it rather be a call for continuing to develop better relationships and to build up the successful aspects of partnership development?