Initial teacher education – How to solve the recruitment crisis

Collage illustration conveying idea of remote learning, representing initial teacher education

Viv Ellis and Sarah Steadman survey the initial teacher education landscape and put forward some ideas for how it might be improved…

Viv Ellis and Sarah Steadman
by Viv Ellis and Sarah Steadman

Few, if any teachers in England need to be told that initial teacher education and continuing professional development (CPD) standards are in a state of crisis.

A crisis prompted not just by austerity-fuelled public sector funding shortfalls, but also by a dearth of ideas and a lack of competent government.

It’s normal for a government to take an interest in improving things like initial teacher education. Indeed, many governments have. But rare is the government which makes changes that alienate its key partners – to the point of considering whether to leave the sector completely – while also shooting itself in the foot by effectively eliminating 20% of its providers, after said providers fail to pass a hastily devised, paper-based accreditation exercise.

And yet, as we argue in our new anthology, Teacher Education in Crisis: The State, the Market and the Universities in England, this is precisely what’s happened in England. It’s why we now face even greater challenges with teacher recruitment, and particularly teacher retention.

3 tips for policymakers

In our view, any future government that’s serious about tackling the teacher recruitment crisis needs to address three key issues.

Firstly, embedded in any future policies should be a better understanding of why people choose to teach and stick with teaching as a career.

Secondly, said policies will need to reflect the differences between primary and secondary education, and be sensitive to the different subjects that make up the latter.

Finally, any new policies will need to seriously engage with teaching as a profession. This is rather than just paying lip service to the idea. Professionals are entitled to a degree of relative autonomy when undertaking their work. They are not civil servants (with all due respect to civil servants!).

As a first step, we have to recognise that we’ve lost some pretty important things as a result of current teacher education policies, and that it’s time we got them back.

The meaning of being a teacher

In England, the transition from ‘teacher education’ to ‘teacher training’ had become firmly embedded in policy by 2010, with multiple references to ‘training’ and ‘trainees’ appearing in Michael Gove’s white paper, ‘The Importance of Teaching’.

Behind the semantics lies the notion of the teacher being a technician, progressing along a linear pathway of skills acquisition to fulfil the competence-based assessment framework of the Teachers’ Standards.

The development of skills and the opportunity to practice pedagogy are both critical to the process of learning how to teach, of course. But becoming and being a teacher amounts to considerably more than just the accumulation of skills.

In the same way that becoming a pianist certainly involves learning scales, you don’t simply stop there. What motivates you to become a pianist is partly related to notions of identity – becoming a pianist, making music, and all that means for you – that extend beyond technical proficiency.

Teacher preparation can similarly centre on aspects of identity and belonging. This builds the foundations for a more culturally responsive and contextually-specific type of teaching.

The University of Chicago’s Urban Teacher Education Program, for example, includes a ‘Foundations of Education’ course incorporating what was originally termed a ‘Soul Strand.’ This sees aspiring teachers work together to understand how issues of class, culture, gender and language affect their identities, the identities of their students and the subsequent impact of teaching and learning.

An approach to teacher preparation with ‘soul’ at its centre seems like a far cry from education policies framed around ‘effectiveness’. These leave little room for exploration of what it means to be a teacher.

Yet experience suggests that you can’t produce sustainable effectiveness without considering the motivations, aspirations and wellbeing of teachers themselves.

Subject specificity

Just as there are big differences between primary teaching and secondary teaching, there are also significant distinctions between the teaching of different secondary subjects.

Progression in a given subject or discipline will be marked out by different ways of knowing and different ways of representing knowledge.

Multiple studies over several decades have shown that it’s the love of a specific subject or discipline that attracts many to secondary teaching. For both practical and philosophical reasons, it therefore makes sense for teacher education policy to be more subject-specific.

“Teaching and teacher education are in crisis, but also at a crossroads”


The prescribed content of initial teacher education and early career CPD currently places a high value on the theoretical understanding of memory.

This leads inevitably to placing greater emphasis on retrieval practice and related concepts that draw from – it must be said – a fairly narrow slice of cognitive psychology.

But while retrieval practice may be vitally important in subjects such as mathematics, it’s markedly less important in, say, English, where the subject’s arguably less complex and valued aspects are those that rely on recall. That’s not to say there’s no place for memory in English. However, its relative importance to the development of expertise is certainly different compared to other subjects.

This matters, because if you prioritise generic aspects of pedagogy above all else, you’ll likely produce two negative effects. One is that you’ll discourage some students from studying subjects that don’t align well with this prevailing emphasis on memory.

This is because they don’t see that as what’s most valuable about the subject. The decline in students taking A Level English is a case in point.

The other negative effect will be the loss of strong subject communities among teachers, who will use these to not only develop their professional identities, but also collaborate on developing new subject knowledge.

Professionalism and agency

The teaching profession is full of talented and inspiring professionals who are willing and able to support new teachers. But the narrowing of teacher preparation to just the dissemination and acquisition of a prescribed toolkit of professional skills (underpinned by a similarly selective and narrow research base) threatens to undermine the professional agency of those in classrooms.

Mentors in schools possess specific knowledge of their own settings. They can provide valuable insights into the subtleties of practice that best serve their school communities.

Conversely, the initial teacher education and CPD reforms of recent years are characterised more by the use of generic materials that fail to reflect the individual and often contextually-driven experience of teaching.

This inevitably impacts upon the roles and identities of both aspiring and existing teachers. This contributes to feelings of frustration and a sense of de-professionalisation.

A ‘one size fits all’ approach to teacher education undermines professional autonomy, thus making teaching a less attractive profession. And for those people who do still opt to join regardless, there are ever more limited incentives to stay.

Own goals

Speaking at the 2023 Labour Party Conference, Sinéad McBrearty, CEO of the charity Education Support remarked, “People who come into the profession have a strong sense of purpose. We’ve got gold dust in our hands, and all they want to do is teach. But we take bright, shiny people and grind the life out of them. It’s an incredible own goal.

Damning words, but indicative of how much the profession stands to lose if we continue to stifle the creativity of newcomers and reduce opportunities for practising teachers to share their expertise autonomously.

As the saying goes, ‘Don’t waste a good crisis.’ Teaching and teacher education are in crisis, but also at a crossroads. Policymakers need to take account of people’s motivations and developing sense of identity as teachers, while recognising subject-specific differences.

Above all, policymakers need to understand that if you want an intelligent workforce that’s both knowledgeable and adaptable, you need to treat them like professionals. This means encouraging them to exercise their responsibilities and agency accordingly. Will England’s next government be bold enough to embrace this approach?

Viv Ellis is Dean of the Faculty of Education at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia; Sarah Steadman is a lecturer in English education at King’s College London

Teacher Education in Crisis: The State, the Market and the Universities in England (edited by Ellis, with Steadman among the contributors) is available now (Bloomsbury Academic, £24.99). It’s also accessible through Bloomsbury’s Open Access service

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