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So, the DfE has Withdrawn the Professional Skills Test – Good Riddance!

There will be no fond farewell for professional skills tests – they were outdated, no longer fit for purpose and unreflective of the job, says Emma Hollis...

  • So, the DfE has Withdrawn the Professional Skills Test – Good Riddance!

So the Department for Education (DfE) has withdrawn the professional skills test at the end of the current recruitment style. Well, it’s about time.

Currently, all trainee teachers have to pass these tests before they can be accepted onto a teacher training programme.

They have been undertaken to assess the core skills that teachers need to fulfil their professional role in schools, rather than the subject knowledge needed for teaching, to ensure that all teachers are competent in numeracy and literacy regardless of their specialism.

However, this is an outdated system and no longer fit for purpose. It is also a known barrier to the profession. In 2017-18 alone, 3,750 candidates (10% of all trainees) failed at least one test.

Originally, any would-be teacher who failed three times was locked out of training for two years before he or she could retake the tests, but that limit was removed last February.

Overall, this does not reflect the way we teach and assess children – and therefore is not representative of how we want the profession to behave.

The good news: the tests will be replaced with a new system where trainees will be assured against a set of fundamental numeracy and literacy skills by the end of their initial teacher training (ITT).

There may be fears from some quarters that this is ‘dumbing down’ the profession, but those fears are misplaced.

The majority of ITT providers, who are responsible for checking that all trainees meet the ITT entry requirements for the skills tests before they start the course, are already working with trainees to ensure that if there are any gaps, they are filled.

Prospective teachers need to be able to evidence functional literacy and numeracy, but there are far more nuanced, sophisticated ways to ensure this than the old system.

So why was the system broken? Well, for a start we have had too many cases of either ‘false positives’ or candidates missing out by just a few marks, often as a result of technical issues or difficulties with the false test situation, which does not accurately reflect their understanding.

Then there are the practical barriers that have been an issue – location of test centres and difficulty booking appointments – so removing skills tests is already more inclusive as accessing the test centres (including the need to physically fund travel to get to them) were more of a barrier to some candidates than others.

By ending arbitrary testing schools and universities will be able to better identify the individual needs of each trainee and offer them extra support to strengthen their skills where needed.

They can take a developmental approach to a candidate’s numeracy and literacy skills, which will allow gaps to be identified and filled.

Going forward, this will ensure quality and consistency, as they will have a more-rounded understanding of a cohort’s functional literacy and numeracy requirements. Ultimately, standards will improve.

While school-centred initial teacher training (SCITT) providers, school direct lead schools and other ITT specialists will benefit from greater understanding of the needs of their candidates and fewer frustrations with the delays and barriers caused by skills test centres.

It will also bring huge money saving to the sector – approximately £15 million per year is currently spent on funding skills test contracts.

For the National Association of School-Based Teacher Trainers (NASBTT), this is something we have been calling for – in response to member feedback – for a number of years, and therefore represents a huge win for us.

We have written letters to the secretary of state, lobbied the schools minister and his team, supported and advised the DfE team investigating possible alternatives, and arranged member focus groups with the DfE to explore the issue. This is the perfect outcome.

In the Teacher Retention and Recruitment Strategy, published in January, the government committed to helping great people become teachers and making sure they receive high-quality teacher training.

There are very significant teacher shortages across the country and we need to do more to encourage recruitment. We should remove any unnecessary hurdles, like this.

We look forward to working with the DfE and others to design an alternative approach that more accurately reflects the skills that teachers need in today’s classrooms.

This will encourage more capable candidates to undertake teacher education and should result in a much-needed increase in high-quality teachers in England.

Emma Hollis is executive director of the National Association of School-Based Teacher Trainers (NASBTT). Follow her on Twitter at @EHollisNASBTT.

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