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This post discusses the gap between what the schools white paper said would be in the ITT core content framework and what was actually published.

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Background

In a previous post – Differentiation in the ITT core content framework (March 2016) – I described the origins of the framework and its intended focus on differentiation, including for the most able.

‘DfE should commission a sector body…to develop a framework of core content for ITT. We feel it is critical that a framework is developed by the sector, rather than by central government.’

An annex outlining starting points for a core framework includes:

Differentiation – ITT should equip teachers so they can ensure that all pupils in the class, including lower and higher achievers, should make progress and keep pace with the curriculum.’

  • The government’s response (also January 2015) accepted the case for a core framework without explicitly mentioning differentiation as a priority to be addressed. It said that an independent working group would be commissioned to develop the framework.
  • A DfE press release (March 2015) announced an eight-strong ‘independent expert group’ charged with developing the framework and reporting to ministers by ‘the end of 2015’.
  • A second DfE press release (September 2015) mentioned the addition of four more members, perceptibly stiffening the Conservative voice on the group in the wake of the 2015 general election. The deadline was also extended to ‘spring 2016’, suggesting that relatively disappointing progress had been made up to that point.

‘Building on Sir Andrew Carter’s recommendations, an independent working group chaired by Stephen Munday is now developing a clear framework for ITT core content which will help to prepare trainees to meet the Teachers’ Standards at the right level.

Tom Bennett, a teacher and behaviour expert, is reviewing how well ITT prepares teachers for behaviour management, which will contribute to the framework; and as high quality mentoring is something that new trainees find most helpful, the Teaching Schools Council is developing a new standard for ITT mentors to help define and spread good practice. All three groups will publish their reports in the coming months.’

  • The white paper acknowledged the intended focus on differentiation:

‘Following the independent review of ITT chaired by Sir Andrew Carter in 2014, our focus for further reform to ITT will be on improving the quality of training so that all new teachers enter the classroom with advanced subject knowledge, practical behaviour management skills, and a greater understanding of evidence-based practice and how to adapt their teaching to unlock the full potential of pupils with a wide range of different needs.’

The structure of that sentence suggests that the final section was tacked on as an afterthought.

  • The white paper also explicitly identified the framework as contributing to its commitment to:

‘ensure that all schools can stretch their…most academically able pupils by increasing the focus on, and supporting approaches aimed at, boosting their attainment’ (para. 6.56).

Specifically:

the new core ITT framework will now include a specific focus on stretching the most academically able pupils and cutting edge evidence on how these pupils can be challenged and stimulated to achieve the very highest standards’ (para. 6.59).

That ‘now’ suggests a belated addition to the group’s terms of reference.

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‘Excellence for all’ versus ‘no child left behind’

My previous post discussed the likelihood that, in securing this focus on the most able, the group would struggle to navigate the fundamental shift in core educational principles that has occurred since the election.

For Carter clearly espoused the ‘no child left behind’ principle which held sway under the Coalition government and which still influences parts of contemporary education policy, creating awkward tensions which are yet to be resolved:

It is critical that attainment gaps are not reinforced through approaches taken to pupil differentiation. Effective differentiation does not mean having several different lesson plans for one class, which can lead to lower attaining pupils falling further behind…

…Additionally, new teachers should have a sound grasp of practical strategies to enable lower achieving pupils to address critical gaps, make quick progress and keep up. Similarly they should understand how to deepen and to enrich the understanding of pupils who grasp curriculum concepts quickly.’

In stark contrast the ‘excellence for all’ principle adopted in the white paper focuses on all learners making the best possible progress, regardless of prior attainment:

‘Equally, we reject the notion that our schools should limit their focus on bringing every child up to a minimum level – instead, they should stretch every child, including the most able, to reach their full potential.’ (para 1.20)

One consequence of this position is that closing attainment gaps between lower and higher attainers is no longer regarded as essential, although closing gaps between disadvantaged learners and their peers remains a top priority. These two ambitions are subtly different.

This is an extremely welcome shift that should help educators maintain the highest possible expectations of disadvantaged learners, improving the chances that our substantial excellence gaps – between high attainers from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds – will be given more priority across the system as a whole.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, maximising the potential of the most able learners is best achieved through a judicious blend of enrichment (more breadth), extension (greater depth) and acceleration (faster pace). The ideal combination will depend on the setting and the needs of each learner.

Care has to be taken to ensure that learners do not move on to new content before they are secure in their existing learning, but that is no reason to forgo entirely faster pace as one element of effective top-end differentiation.

Unfortunately confusion prevails across the school system, compounded by the messy transition between the two competing principles.

Hence there is no system-wide consensus on top-end differentiation, or indeed on how best to provide effective whole-school support for high attainers, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

My previous post expressed doubt that the ITT core content group would be able to forge such consensus – and also whether it was the right body to attempt this feat.

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The group’s terms of reference

The framework finally appeared on 12 July 2016, some seven months later than originally scheduled.

It was reportedly submitted by early May, but must have been delayed subsequently by a combination of Euro-purdah and internal approval processes.

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It may have been rushed out by ministers ahead of the impending government reshuffle, just in case incoming ministers decided that it did not pass muster.

The framework document includes the terms of reference given to the working group, which were not previously published.

These emphasise the importance of brevity and focus:

‘The review concluded that it is less effective to cover a huge range of content at the expense of covering the most important issues effectively. This working group will need to design a framework that guides those delivering ITT in what should be prioritised; the group should not aim to develop an exhaustive list of ITT content. The development of this framework should not undermine the freedom of ITT partnerships to innovate and tailor their programmes for their trainees.’

Consultation is expected as part of the development process:

‘The working group should consult with relevant experts and stakeholders across the education sector.’

An annex to the published framework includes a rather short list of some 40 organisations that:

‘…took the time to contribute their views on the development of the framework either through roundtable discussions or individual discussions or by submitting evidence.’

However the main text mentions 18 ‘roundtable events and inputs to conferences’ and 58 submissions of written evidence.

Regardless of the exact numbers this process must have been undertaken privately, since the group did not publish an open call for evidence, nor did it advertise openly the opportunity to attend its roundtable events.

There is nothing in the terms of reference to reinforce the white paper commitment relating to the most able. Organisations with specific expertise in supporting the most able are not included in the list of those consulted.

What the framework says

The framework takes the form of a brief gloss on each section of the Teachers Standards. One page is devoted to each of the eight standards, while a ninth addresses the additional section on Personal and Professional Conduct.

The standards (reproduced in blue boxes) together account for something between one third and one half of the entire framework. The additional material takes up thirty short paragraphs, several of them comprising a single sentence.

Leaving aside material in the Teachers Standards there is only a single reference to the most able.

This relates to the first standard, about setting high expectations. It says:

‘Providers should ensure that trainees understand that the obligation to set high standards which inspire, motivate and challenge applies to all pupils for whom a teacher has responsibility. This applies regardless of age, ability or aptitude, and includes pupils who might have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), and pupils for whom English is an additional language (EAL). Providers should equip trainees to be able to inspire and provide extra challenge for the most able pupils.

The terms ‘ability’ and ‘aptitude’ are used in preference to ‘prior attainment’. Neither is explained.

The fifth standard, about adapting teaching to the strengths and needs of all pupils, itself mentions ability, saying that teachers should have ‘a clear understanding of the needs of all pupils including…those of high ability…’

But the four new paragraphs that gloss this standard make no reference whatsoever to the most able.

The bulk of the text relates to SEN.

At the very least it would have been helpful to have defined the term ‘high ability’ in this context, especially since the alternative ‘most able’ terminology relates exclusively to learners with comparatively high prior attainment.

There is a peculiar section at the beginning:

‘Providers should ensure that trainees…avoid labelling by group…’

This rather conspicuous Peacockism apparently survived the editorial process. It appears to suggest that labelling individuals is perfectly acceptable. It might otherwise be interpreted as an oblique sideswipe at the white paper commitment.

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Verdict

The framework as a whole can best be described as minimalist.

The working group has so far respected the injunction not to provide an exhaustive list of content that it has veered completely to the other extreme, generating a clutch of short paragraphs that add comparatively little of value to the Teachers Standards.

There is very little to show for 18 months effort by a hand-picked group of experts – one suspects that a much more helpful draft document could have been prepared by officials far more quickly, and then subjected to full and open consultation. No doubt Carter’s insistence on an independent process is to blame.

As for the single sentence:

Providers should equip trainees to be able to inspire and provide extra challenge for the most able pupils

it fails completely to satisfy the white paper commitment to:

‘include a specific focus on stretching the most academically able pupils and cutting edge evidence on how these pupils can be challenged and stimulated to achieve the very highest standards’

That means the published framework is entirely at odds with official government policy.

There has been no justification for this omission. Did pressure to protect the autonomy of ITT providers – whether universities or schools – result in this obligation being kicked unceremoniously into the long grass?

One suspects that the members could not agree a form of words, precisely because there is no proper consensus on the issue. Or perhaps they simply forgot.

We are owed an explanation – and I cordially invite any or all of the working group members to supply one.

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If they did indeed prepare more substantive draft material, subsequently discarded by officials and ministers during the editing process, then it would be helpful to see it – and to understand why it was found wanting. Did the working group not question the omission?

Given that this group has been unable to come up with the goods, will another be convened specifically to develop national guidance on meeting the needs of the most able? If so, it will be necessary to ensure that the members have genuine expertise to offer – and no ideological axes to grind.

Such guidance is desperately needed, especially as we prepare to re-enter debate over the pros and cons of selection.

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TD

July 2016

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