Staff from initial teacher education (ITE) providers across Wales met at the recent HEA enhancement event 'Higher education matters in Wales' with a clear focus on examining the role that initial teacher education can play as part of a nationwide effort to break the link between disadvantage and attainment. In this post Angella Cooze and Gail Parker discuss some of the key factors impacting pupil attainment that were explored and outline the discussions that focused in how we could develop the skills and knowledge of our students to enable them to provide purposeful learning opportunities for all of their pupils.
Angella is Senior Lecturer Lead in Languages and Literacy at University of Wales Trinity St. David (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Gail is Lead in Foundation Phase at University of Wales Trinity St. David.
As part of a group of staff drawn from each ITE centre in Wales, we participated in a day of workshops and discussions aimed at “closing the gap”. The group comprised staff with expertise in a range of areas including literacy, numeracy, the arts, community education and poverty, and additional learning needs. The day started pragmatically with the group members sharing what they felt could contribute to the workshops and, importantly, what we hoped we would leave with. As the list below demonstrates, there was agreement that we wanted to clarify what we should do next so as to best and most usefully focus our students on how to meet the needs of their pupils.
- Practical ideas to improve provision;
- improved personal understanding;
- strategies for ITE students to implement in schools to raise pupil attainment;
- a stronger research and practice network in ITE;
- a sector wide pool of resources, approaches and principles; and
- key ideas relating to module reviews and evaluation that could be implemented for the coming year and beyond.
Alongside the professional experience, knowledge and expertise of the group members, the group also identified the commitment, enthusiasm and positivity they brought with them to the day. It was evident fairly early on that all wanted to make a purposeful contribution to this important area of work, which is high on the political and social agenda in Wales.
We looked at the possible outcomes of the day, these being:
- This blog post!;
- an understanding of the possible future directions of ITE in this area, and the support needed to facilitate implementation;
- the identification of possible ways in which ITE can support student teachers to be able to break the link between poverty and the attainment gap and increase student awareness of, and confidence and knowledge in, their ability to break the link between poverty and the attainment gap;
- to identify and review current guidance and resources on supporting student (and serving) teachers in breaking the link between poverty and the attainment gap; and
- to leave the day with agreed actions.
Scoping current practice
In these initial stages, we sought to establish what the key issues and elements were and those aspects we felt our students could have most impact on. As well as helping sharpen our focus, this also gave us the chance to hear what others were already delivering within their programmes and how we all could benefit from sharing practice. This in turn raised important questions about improving the status of ITE in Wales, which could support the work we all do in attracting high quality academically and professionally-motivated candidates to the profession.
In groups we were guided by our excellent facilitator from the Higher Education Academy, Pauline, to outline what we currently do, in order to share the effective methods in operation. From this, we drew together a list of the range of resources and events that our ITE students currently benefit from.
Most providers used the system of a lead lecture to introduce the issue of poverty, followed up with smaller seminars and workshops. Students are currently referred to a wide variety of resources and events including:
- Estyn and Welsh Government guidelines;
- The Sutton Toolkit;
- Save the Children reports;
- The Wales Centre for Equity in Education;
- Expert speakers;
- Rewriting the Future;
- Swansea City Football Club project;
- ALN conferences hosted in and organised by ITE centres.
Having established what we all already did across our ITE programmes, the next stage was to explore critically how we could build upon this, with the aim of developing coherent, purposeful shared aims, approaches and, importantly, actions. Much discussion was focused around the importance of impact. We wanted our students to have a clear understanding of some of the potential barriers to pupil achievement –some tangible, such as weak literacy skills, and others more subtly pervasive, such as low and/or stereotyped expectations–and how they, as classroom practitioners, should and could make positive, purposeful contributions to the achievement of all of their pupils.
The first stage in this was considering how we can build on our own current provision to develop our students’ knowledge, understanding and confidence.
The group felt that key areas need to be considered here. These were split into: curriculum content, assessment, pedagogy and ‘other’ – which became the repository for some of those often complex, disparate elements (many of which were contextual features that were beyond the school or university gates) that seemed to not quite fit anywhere specifically but were persistent themes in our discussions.
Some important shared aims emerged from this exercise. The most commonly agreed upon aspects of immediate focus are outlined below, and this really is a short précis of some very detailed and thoughtful discussion.
Curriculum content: gathering and interpreting data for use in the classroom; understanding of the role of family and community; developing deeper understanding of how theory and research feeds into practice and the importance of evidence-based practice; more confident use of literacy and numeracy interventions.
Assessment: the importance of developing student confidence in using and interpreting assessment instruments and data so as to best impact on pupils’ learning; designing student assessments that allow them to meaningfully explore and evaluate this impact.
Pedagogy: the need for a clear link to the professional development pathways outlined by Welsh Government as part of the ‘new deal’ and a longer term vision of our aims beyond the ITE period as part of this longer term vision for teacher development; clarity re the need to challenge stereotypes and preconceptions and to focus on high expectations for all pupils; to focus on what works in the classroom as a central organising principle (including making the most of the excellent practice in our partner schools) and to make clear the links between research, theory and effective classroom practice.
Other: as may be imagined, this topic generated a wide range of comments covering many elements of this agenda. These included practical aspects, such as theinvolvement of students in community and family education projects, as well as wider concerns such as the need for more committed investment in a more connected approach that saw schools, housing offices, community centres and so on as part of a coherent ‘wrap around’ approach.
Having considered the sorts of changes we thought we could make to our existing courses that we could implement fairly quickly, we had the chance to dream a little bigger and envisage possible future directions in working towards breaking the link between poverty and attainment. Here, in cross-institution groups, we were encouraged to draw our image for the future and consider what we would like to do if all possible obstacles were removed. These images were interesting – some were even well-drawn! – and did help clarify some common aspirations, including how we saw ITE within this context.
Images aside, some important key ideas emerged. These were then voted upon by each member of the group. These ideas were far ranging and were, after all, intended to spark discussion about possible futures. The most popular of these ideas, did, though, tend towards the implementable in the main. We have attempted to collate these thoughts into some (loose) groupings. They include:
Recruitment and course structure
Offer financial incentives at the end of a stipulated period of classroom practice; revise entry requirements in consultation with ITE providers and schools; re-write the Standards for QTS; create two year M-Level courses with a more purposeful structure within stronger school-university partnerships; raise the status of the profession and re-define perceptions of what it means to be a teacher.
Working practices and partnerships
More focus on shared CPD for university and school staff as well as students; more flexible practices to enable us to react to change more effectively; more collaborative, multi-agency partnership working; flexible shared resources and practices shared across sector; more focus on community and family working; working with school partners in more effective ways; use of case studies and filmed episodes where useful.
Ethos and purpose
Develop shared vision of the role and purpose of ITE providers in breaking the link between poverty and attainment; establish a clear ethos of high expectations for our students and their pupils; rethink the role of the teacher and how this expands beyond the classroom and into community/family; have at the centre of ITE a clear commitment to all learners.
Some recurring core principles emerged throughout the day. These included the importance of high expectations and aspirations for our students and their pupils. In turn, of course, this led into frequent discussions about stereotypes and the impact of an academic ‘diet’ of low expectation on pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. The group returned again and again to the importance of providing all pupils with challenging work that encourages them to explore ideas and develop and extend their knowledge and skills. The big task is how this is to be done and how our student teachers can become skilled in setting aside any preconceptions they might have of their pupils and work to see potential instead. Other conversations returned time and again to the central (and well evidenced) role of the community and how we could develop this aspect of our students’ training.
We were aware of the need to move to manageable action and, to that end, left with a number of agreed proposals and actions that will enable us to begin the process of supporting our students in working towards breaking the link between poverty and attainment. These include:
- Establishing a cross-centre group to work specifically on this area and to open dialogue with Welsh Government; we will look at the UCET Cymru ‘national priorities’ subgroup as a vehicle for this;
- disseminating the works of the group across the centres and partners;
- agreeing shared resources and approaches that can be used across centres;
- making practical changes to programmes for the coming year with a view to revising these changes for future provision;
- tackling myths, stereotypes and expectation sdirectly with ITE students as a central part of their ITE programme;
- identifying those schools who have demonstrated success in breaking the link between poverty and attainment with a view to sharing their experience; and
- identifying those schools with good family and community links with a view to sharing their practice and using it to inform programme provision.
As a group, we were well aware that many of the things we were discussing throughout the day need input beyond us. We were also aware that some elements – the status of the profession, and the economic circumstances of our pupils, for instance –were not only beyond our reach but were long term concerns. We did, though, leave the day hopeful that we could begin to effect change at the level of our programmes and that those changes should have some impact on our student teachers and, in turn, their pupils.