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The Early Career Framework: One Term In

The Early Career Framework has the potential to transform the experience of new teachers, and ultimately the whole educational landscape. It can help us all get better.

Since I first heard whispers of the Early Career Framework a few years ago, I’ve been incredibly excited by it. This is exactly what education needs, I thought, a carefully sequenced teacher-curriculum that breaks down core knowledge all teachers need to develop and asks them to deliberately practice each element until it is mastered. Fantastic!

You only need to take a glance at the dreadful teacher retention statistics to know something has to change. Sam Sims and Rebecca Allen eloquently argue the importance of a proper coaching for teachers in their brilliant book The Teacher Gap, and the ECF is designed to fill the gap between teacher proficiency and the enormous requirements of the job.

With the ECF, I thought that so much could be achieved. Gone would be the days of throwing NQTs into classrooms and expecting them to simply work out how to teach by trial-and-error. Gone would be the times we kept everything crossed that NQTs could manage behaviour, plan and deliver high-quality lessons and give feedback based on their wide-ranging teacher-training courses. Gone would be the days of just hoping that mentors have the ability — and time — to really support their NQTs. With its ordered programme of study, I had high hopes that the ECF would allow all NQTs to flourish.

But when I found out that I was soon going to be involved in the DfE’s expanded early-roll out of the ECF, I was a little daunted. The prospect of getting my head around a brand-new training framework, and running this alongside our legacy NQT programme assessed by the local authority, was not one I particularly relished. It felt like just one thing too many, in a term that already looked set to be the most challenging of my career to date. But, thanks to the endlessly patient and supportive Patrick Alexander, Director of Curriculum and Teacher Development at the Inspiration Trust, I took up the mantel and forged ahead.

Now, one term in, and my excitement has returned. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s a lot better than the patchy inconsistencies of traditional NQT provision. Here are my main takeaways so far.

Deciding on the core knowledge all teachers need will only help all NQTs get better faster. The three strands for first-year teachers are ‘Behaviour’, ‘Instruction’ and ‘Subject’. Each strand comprises twelve modules of specific knowledge that allow all teachers to run their classrooms effectively. In term 1, new teachers look at routines instructions early on, then build on this foundational knowledge by looking at eliminating low-level disruption, incorporating challenge, and then organising pairs and groups to maximise learning. Each week, new teachers work with their coaches to create models for each element, and then embed them immediately in their classroom practice. Having such focused topics for study can only result in the rapid mastery of the building blocks of excellent teaching. And this will promote very rapid feelings of success for new teachers.

Getting training in instructional coaching is transformative. When I first mentored an NQT, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Because I’d learned most of what I did in the classroom through watching expert teachers and having a go myself, I had no language to describe the basic requirements of effective teaching. I wasn’t able to break down and explain what good teachers do to achieve results in the classroom. And I certainly wasn’t able to provide helpful advice when things went wrong. In short, I was absolutely clueless.

I managed to get a bit better over time, but this was through luck rather than design. So it was a delight to attend the training sessions on instructional coaching. We were talked through the process of studying a specific element, then building a model of it, having new teachers practice it with you, before finally incorporating it into their classroom practice. Suddenly it clicked: this is how you teach teachers so that everyone can succeed.

The weekly, low-stakes drop-ins are far more supportive than half-termly observations. Traditionally, NQTs can be left to flounder, especially once they’ve got a basic handling of their groups after the first two weeks. All too often, the half-termly observation is a source of trepidation, rather than a tool of teacher development. That’s why the weekly drop-ins which focus on the key learning for the week are far more effective. They are low-stakes, and therefore far more supportive. They are focused, and therefore more motivating.

The evidence-based resources are brilliant. My trust is working with Ambition Institute’s ECF programme, and the resources they’ve put together are second-to-none. Each module contains an instructional video, a short article to read, and a self-review quiz. They are a testament to the best in research-based teaching strategies. They’re also quick to study and instantly applicable. I wish I’d had access to these when I was learning to teach.

So, there’s undoubtedly lots to be excited about. But at just one term in, we wouldn’t expect it to be perfect yet, and there are a few issues that need to be ironed out. It’s time-demanding and leaves very little time for school-based training or networking. There’s a leaning towards generic approaches to pedagogy which may overshadow both subject specificity and the localised contexts that schools work in. The interface can be a little frustrating at times; as ECF Lead, it’s not always easy to see exactly what is being practised at any one time. And perhaps predictably, the ways of assessing NQTs aren’t being reviewed quickly enough, so the risk of a chasm opening up between NQT curriculum and NQT assessment is very real.

But having said that, the potential of the ECF is enormous. It has the power to transform the success — and retention — rates of new teachers across the country. It’s actually teaching new teachers the foundations of excellence, and this will only allow far more people to master the complex art of teaching far more quickly.

Thinking about the ECF next year? Here are five things to consider:

1. Who will be your provider? I can vouch for Ambition for sure, but there are several other providers too, listed here. It’s probably best to start looking into what’s the best for your context soonish.

2. If you’re going to be the ECF Lead, don’t put yourself on the back foot. Read up on how it’ll work. Take advantage of any training opportunities this year. Get your head around the language: from ‘strands’, ‘modules’ and ‘cycles’, it can be a little confusing at first.

3. You’ll need to work out how the ECF will work alongside your existing NQT assessment procedures. Your current NQT training programme will also need to adapt. You don’t want to ask your mentors and NQTs to follow two programmes in parallel: this would be an enormous amount of work and be incredibly confusing. You’ll probably end up ditching your current training programme in favour for the ECF, but I know this will be a wrench for many (including myself) who put long hours into planning it.

4. Your mentors will need lots of advance warning about the ECF and its benefits. Get them onside early, share your excitement about the potential of the ECF in making stronger teachers, and your job next year will be much, much easier.

5. You’ll need to consider the time requirements of the ECF. Coaches and NQTs need a weekly slot and coaches will need time to do short observations each week. It’s not a huge amount more than what most schools currently need, but it’ll be worth talking to your Principal about protecting time for those involved.

Elisabeth Bowling @elucymay

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