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Tristram Hunt’s proposal for relicensing teachers every five or more years has sparked much debate, from initial rebukes to more considered engagement.  One aspect of the proposal that deserves greater attention is the opportunity to give teachers more explicit encouragement to engage in more active enquiry and robust evaluation, whilst continuing to raise the quality and relevance of research.

Teachers only rarely receive the time, support, recognition and reward they need to develop research-related skills and deepen their research-based knowledge.

There are plenty of reasons to proceed with caution, not least because the appropriate body to develop and take forward such any licensing system – an autonomous, teacher-led professional body in the form of a new College of Teaching, Royal or otherwise – does not yet exist.   (On this, there is still much to do to resolve the current sticking points and allow such a body to establish itself as a trusted, independent institution, free from government interference or political agenda.  But these intricacies shouldn’t prevent other ideas from at least being explored in the meantime.  The crucial point is that all parties must be willing to accept the autonomy of the College as and when it is established: in the future, politicians may continue to make proposals of this kind, but the power to decide what is developed and ultimately implemented must reside with the College in consultation with its members, not dictated by Ministers).

Furthermore, as David Weston usefully spells out, there are some key issues to resolve in developing such a scheme, most obviously around how assessment for licensing would actually take place, there being problems with relying on either peer observation or value added scores from pupil performance data as a method for assessing teacher quality, as both have been shown to be unreliable (though training in how to observe would at least improve the former, as well as exploring other options such as using in combination with pupil feedback etc.)

Nevertheless, the proposal for a re-licensing scheme touches on something hugely important, which it would be unfortunate and even damaging for the profession to miss.  This is the chance to consider what is needed to motivate, equip and engage teachers in the use of evidence and enquiry from the beginning of their training and how to sustain that engagement and commitment throughout their professional career.

For any (re-)licensing scheme to be successful, it needs to start with the profession deciding for itself, at least in outline form, the professional skillset and body of knowledge that all teachers must be able to demonstrate at different stages of their career. General agreement on this would help make progress towards a second key goal: namely, how to transform the culture of professional learning within English schools, so that it became a normal and established part of teachers’ education and career development to draw on the latest research and evidence, extending their capacity to enquire into what is working and not working in their own schools and classrooms.

Now, teachers could say, with some justification, that they don’t need a system of licensing and relicensing to prompt them to update and refresh their skills and knowledge.  Indeed, far from inspiring this type of positive developmental activity, a poorly developed scheme or one implemented in haste could have precisely the opposite effect, in terms of dampening their motivation, trampling over morale and incentivising shallow forms of box-ticking behaviour.

But we know from research and experience that teachers only rarely receive the time, support, recognition and reward they need to develop these research-related skills and deepen their research-based knowledge.

As the BERA-RSA interim report shows, the UK lacks a coherent and systematic approach to teacher education

The interim report of the BERA-RSA Inquiry, launched this week, compares the situation across the four nations of the UK with provision for teacher education and professional learning in some of the highest performing education systems world-wide.  One of the striking conclusions is the extent to which those high performing systems promote a culture of evidence-based enquiry and robust evaluation of classroom practice.  By contrast, the UK lacks a coherent and systematic approach to teacher education, which means that teachers are still not being equipped with the necessary skills for enquiry and evaluation. 

This is a systemic issue rather one that comes down to the attitudes or behaviours of individual members of staff.  As Robert Coe says, when it comes to applying the best existing knowledge to observation or other protocols, all involved – teachers and school leaders, researchers, inspectors and the wider education community – need to raise their game on this one.  The same is true of equipping teachers to evaluate their own practice and make informed judgements about what is and isn’t working effectively: there is still much more that researchers and funding bodies could do, for example, to improve the accessibility, relevance and indeed the quality of educational research to address some of the well-known barriers to teacher engagement.

One prominent example in the English context is use of the Pupil Premium, the Coalition’s flagship policy aimed at ‘narrowing the gap’ in outcomes between children from richer and poorer backgrounds.  In the national evaluation, 98% of schools reported that they use their “own internal monitoring and evaluation” in deciding how to spend their Pupil Premium, while 74% of primary and 81% of secondary schools draw on “evidence from other schools or ‘word of mouth’”.  In comparison, a far smaller proportion of schools turn to external resources, such as academic research, the Sutton Trust Tool Kit, local authority schemes or the ‘What Works’ pages of the DfE website, for guidance and advice on how to allocate resources.

This reliance on advice from other schools and internal practice is not unique to the Pupil Premium (and indeed, there has been more explicit emphasis on the use of research in relation to the PP than has traditionally been the case for school spending).  And of course, there are often good reasons for schools’ decision-making to be informed by what they are already doing: schools and teachers develop expertise over the years, and it would be foolish to tear up their existing (good) practice and start again every time a new funding stream or government priority came along. But the reliance on such sources does beg a question as to how robust and thorough these internal processes really are.

These questions are worth asking of any subject department, school leadership team or governing body:

-          How do you know whether your main programmes or interventions are really making a difference?

-           How are you evaluating particular programmes? 

-          Which external partners have helped to review or examine the quality of the evaluation? 

Going further, it is possible to imagine some of the questions that might be asked of teachers if required to re-license at five, seven or even ten year intervals:

-          What does the latest evidence on this say?  What are the main research studies in this area and what do you think are the important lessons for this school?

Thus, while the NUT is right to remark that ‘devil would be in the detail’, it may well be beneficial to give both teachers and school leaders this additional prompt, in the form of relicensing, combined with the necessary support, so that they too are equipped and ready to answer such questions in a more meaningful way.

Louise Bamfield is Associate Director of Education at the RSA and Secretary to the BERA-RSA Inquiry on Research and Teacher Education.


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