The Problem(s) with the Teachers’ Standards

For anyone who has been involved in ITT, it’s impossible to ignore the ubiquity of the Teachers’ Standards. In most training courses, they’re everywhere. For many, the Standards are one of the most memorable parts of their training year, countless hours spent trying to meet targets linked to specific standards, ensuring that lesson plans are clearly labelled with them, and collecting various forms of evidence to prove that they have been met. In their NQT year, many go through the same process again, meticulously demonstrating how they have met each Standard, printing and filing evidence of parents’ evenings, markbooks, extra-curricular activities and duties covered.

None of this, of course, is what the Standards exist for. Their primary function is to act as a barrier for entry to the profession, an aim which is clearly set out in the DfE guidance:

‘The [teachers’] standards define the minimum level of practice expected of trainees and teachers from the point of being awarded qualified teacher status’

Click to access Teachers__Standards.pdf

This is an entirely sensible aim – having a common bar of entry helps to ensure that there is a minimum standard in the quality of teaching nationally, and it also serves an important function in providing a measure of professionalism to which teachers are accountable. However, rather than functioning as a benchmark for entry to the profession, they have quickly become its heart and soul. They have become the basis for grading lessons, been distorted into a progression model, and are used to brutally cut across subject-specificity, in a way that has had a highly problematic impact on the quality of teacher training.

The Standards as grades

The first problem is posed by how the Standards are used to grade teachers. The vast majority of ITT courses use the Standards to grade students at the end of their course, and many also grade their trainees on a termly basis. Some go yet further, insisting on giving a grade for every Standard every lesson. With such importance placed on this, the Standards very quickly become the main focus of a trainee’s practice.

Given that over the last few years we have started to call into question the practice teachers being graded as part of their performance management, it seems baffling that this practice has persisted in teacher training. Not only does this cause undue stress for trainees who already have more than enough to worry about in the classroom, the practice of grading obfuscates – for both trainees and mentors – what needs to be done in order to improve. The focus becomes about getting up to a ‘good’ grade according to the Standards, rather than thinking about steps that could more meaningfully improve practice.

‘We need some evidence…’

This focus on grading trainees according to the Standards leads directly to another problem. Either as trainees, mentors or eavesdroppers in the staff room, at some point in our careers we’ve all heard the phrase ‘we need some evidence for TS…’ Rather than spending time practising questioning or teacher talk, trainees are sent on a quest to amass evidence. Of course, the idea of evidence in itself is no problem – if the Standards are fulfilling their intended role as a benchmark for entry to the profession, then at some point there’s going to come a point where we need evidence that they have been met, be it a comment from a mentor, or some collected documents.

What we have instead ended up with is trainees collecting huge dossiers of evidence, multiple lever-arch files of signed emails that they have helped out with a parents evening, lesson plans that set out precisely how they differentiated for a particular Pupil Premium student, and countless print outs from training sessions. Particularly when deadlines loom, trainees’ weekly targets quickly start to focus on collecting evidence that they have ‘promoted a culture of high expectations’, rather than thinking about how to do so. Once again, we find ourselves losing sight of what teacher training should actually be about – becoming a good practitioner.

The Standards as a progression model

The obsession with grading trainees leads to the training year becoming more about moving from ‘satisfactory’ to ‘outstanding’ than it is about developing as a practitioner. This is particularly problematic because of the way in which the Standards have been distorted into level descriptors. It takes only a quick Google search to find numerous examples of this, with each Standard subdivided into four – or in some cases seven or eight – different ‘levels’.

Where the Standards’ become our road map for improvement, we start to place too much value on surface-level features that are highly visible, rather than the thinking and methods that we know underpins good practice. We find ourselves viewing improvement practice through the lens of vacuous, generic statements which cannot get to the heart of what good teaching really looks like. To take an example from a (random) set of level descriptors I found, the difference between ‘outstanding’ and ‘good’ in (one section) of TS4 is:

ts4

If this is our progression model, what targets does it lead us to set a trainee if we want to get them from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’? ‘Impart more knowledge’? ‘Consider how to impart knowledge more consistently’? ‘Use lesson time more effectively’? Such comments fail to encapsulate what progress actually looks like, and confuse a summative tool with formative targets. We are left with targets that aren’t really helpful in getting a trainee to make meaningful improvements to their practice, forcing them to focus only on the most visible features of their teaching.

To make matters worse, they also leave us wide open to the greatest threat of all.

The threat of genericism

Treating the Teachers’ Standards as a progression model and the exemplar or good practice forces ITT into genericism. The Teachers’ Standards all too easily become a blunt instrument that cuts haphazardly across all that which makes a discipline unique.

Trainees are forced to spend their first year in the profession working on targets that focus primarily on the most visible, generic features of their practice, at the cost of engaging with their subject communities about how to get students thinking meaningfully about change and continuity, or how to get them using the conceptual language needed to analyse causation. It’s no surprise that this produces teachers who have to reinvent the wheel during their early career.

What do we do?

So, what do we do? To be clear, this isn’t a critique of any particular individual or institution. There are some amazing individuals already challenging these problems – Rachel Foster at the University of Cambridge, Will Bailey-Watson at the University of Reading, and Michael Fordham at the Inspiration Trust SCITT. There are also brilliant mentors across the country who work incredibly hard to focus on what matters whilst operating within the limits imposed by the over-emphasis on the Teachers’ Standards that they have to contend with.

However, there remains much to be done. We need subject communities to take a greater role in the provision of teacher training and mentoring, to provide both the expertise and institutional memory to prevent ourselves from reinventing the wheel. We also need a broader conversation about what we want teacher training to achieve (hopefully the ECF will be a useful first step towards this).

And we need to remember what the Teaching Standards are for. They’re a benchmark for entry to the profession, and nothing else. And that’s fine.

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