Across the country, many universities involved in Initial Teacher Education (ITE) say that it’s getting harder and harder to place students in schools, with concern about students affecting the ‘progress’ scores of individual classes commonly cited as a factor. Looking at evidence from CCCU partner schools, Graham Birrell and Bob Bowie find evidence that the fears could be unfounded.
Canterbury Christ Church University has a lot of teaching students. A lot. For primary it’s around 1200 on all routes and for secondary it’s about 700. This makes us one of the largest ITE providers in the country.
A nice place to be?
Well in some respects, yes. However, along with scale comes complexity and challenge – ask any large provider of ITE and they’ll all tell you about one particular difficulty: getting students in schools for placements. It’s fair to say that primary schools in particular get a little fed up with the phone ringing or the inbox dinging with the partnership office asking if they could just squeeze in one more student.
For a number of reasons it’s getting harder to find schools to say yes, with two factors above all cited – the fear of the progress data of a particular class getting damaged by teaching from a very inexperienced student and, similarly, ‘our data isn’t good enough and we’re expecting an Ofsted and so we can’t afford to take any students right now’.
These are pretty understandable reasons, especially when schools are under such incredible pressure to get results and the consequences are so far reaching. However, it poses the question: do students actually help or hinder the results of schools? A gut reaction to this would be hinder as they are obviously the most inexperienced teachers out there, which is perhaps why so many Head Teachers are reluctant to take them. But what is the actual evidence?
Intriguingly, there is only a very limited research base for this question and although what there is suggests a positive link, it does so from a qualitative perspective whereas the concerns usually raised by our schools are of a quantitative nature. Therefore, we’ve had a go at looking at this from a statistical angle and although the methodology is admittedly fairly crude, the results are extremely interesting.
Given that the main issues concern primary ITE placements, we’ve concentrated on this phase and crunched the data for the twenty five schools that have taken the most teaching students in the past two years – for ease, henceforth referred to as ‘the Top 25’. We’ve then looked at their progress data using the Ofsted Data Dashboard.
The Dashboard splits schools into five equal quintiles (shown in blue in the graphs below) and places the school you’re examining into one of those quintiles. We grabbed the dashboard data for each of the ‘Top 25’, averaged it out and put them into the following graphs comparing their progress with schools nationally.
Figure 1 shows pupil progress in the Top 25 in writing and it demonstrates that the schools taking lots of students are doing incredibly well here, with 80% in the 1st or 2nd highest quintiles (60% in the highest) and almost none in the bottom 40% – way better than the national average.
Figure 2 shows that again, 80% of the Top 25 are in the 1st or 2nd quintiles for progress in reading…
…and for maths (figure 3) it’s 70%. Although the results for reading and maths balance more towards the 2nd quintile, its still pretty clear evidence that primary schools taking lots of students are not only not doing badly, in fact they’re actually performing extremely strongly.
Since the Dashboard also allows you to see the extent to which schools are narrowing attainment gaps for disadvantaged pupils, we’ve looked at how well the Top 25 are doing here too. Once again, there’s very clear evidence that the Top 25 are schools where all pupils are making great progress, so much so that 85% of the schools have eliminated or surpassed the gap in at least one of the measures and 41% have elimated it in two of them.
So what explains this?
What we’ve clearly got here is a classic cause or correlation dilemma: are some schools in a great position and so say ‘let’s take lots of students’ or is there a causal link between hosting student teachers and great schools?
One way to begin answering this question is to look at the Ofsted grades of the Top 25 and compare them to the national average. As can be seen from the table, the grades are almost identical and don’t provide any evidence that only ‘Ofsted confident’ schools are hosting the student placements. The 0% for special measures is also explained by the fact that until recently schools in that category weren’t allowed to host student teachers.
So what could be going on in the Top 25 that allows them to be making great progress and to be taking lots of student teachers, and crucially, is there a link?
Further research in our partner schools is needed before we can answer that question locally. However, there is evidence to suggest that student teachers can have significant benefits on schools. For example, studies suggest that mentors’ professional development is improved through self‐reflection, from learning from their students and their tutors and via collaboration; and because of these and similar factors they and other teachers in the school become better practitioners.
So although we’re definitely not claiming that our research proves that hosting student teachers helps schools, the evidence suggests it certainly isn’t going to hurt them. So if you’re a Head Teacher in need of school improvement strategies, instead of ruling out student teachers, it may be well worth thinking about ruling them in.