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Five priorities to sustain the impact of ECF reforms

When it comes to strengthening England’s education system, few initiatives held more promise than the Early Career Framework. Launched in 2019 to stem staggeringly high dropout rates among new teachers, the ECF aimed to empower early-career teachers for long-term success. As a strong proponent of the need to improve the experience new teachers for many years, it has been honour therefore to lead a project exploring how it’s going from a variety of perspectives.

While the programme’s initial rollout has been amazingly positive given the challenging circumstances and urgency created by the pandemic, now – a few years in and with an election looming – seems a good time to explore what is working well and what needs further improvement.

We need to get a point where the ECF is a compelling, permanent feature of the teacher development policy landscape. Our exploratory study, funded by the Gatsby Foundation and delivered through the Teacher Development Trust, was a great opportunity to consider how we sustain what has been one of the most important education reforms of recent years.

By reviewing existing literature, speaking to stakeholders across ECF delivery and the wider sector, and working alongside an expert steering committee, we aimed to pinpoint the key opportunities and roadblocks facing long-term ECF impact. Though tentative in nature as a first-phase inquiry, our team’s findings highlighted points of pride and clear areas requiring further investment.

Help mentors help teachers

The biggest game-changer is no surprise but still needs shouting loudly. High quality, structured mentoring is for many the make-or-break factor. The study reinforces just how fundamental this is for early-career teachers. It also shows this can only happen when mentors are properly supported themselves.

New teachers described transformative bonds with mentors adept at tailoring development to their unique contexts and needs. Protected time allocations, specialist training, clearly defined career pathways and robust induction structures all emerged as strategies for unlocking mentoring’s potential.

As one senior leader bluntly stated, “Investment has to be in mentors as well as the ECTs.” Unlocking mentoring’s full potential by funding the time to do their role must become a policy priority moving forward. This cannot be left to the personal generosity of individuals, as was so often reported.

Build in adaptability

We also identified frustrations around the highly prescribed nature of ECF content delivery. While appreciating the intentional coherence of standard curricula, mentors and mentees desired more flexibility to dive deeper into specific areas while eschewing excessive repetition.

Striking that balance between trusted professional judgement and a sequenced learning journey is paramount for sustaining motivation. The newly published framework goes some way to recognising this but could go further.

Empower specialisation

Our analysis also highlighted an overarching need to guarantee access to subject specialists and content tailored to subjects and phases. Mentors steeped in and enthusiastic about their field’s pedagogy, along with networking opportunities to share best practice and feel part of a passionate community, could markedly elevate professional growth.

For many this was expressed as a missed opportunity that school networks and policymakers could collaboratively address. Crucially, new programmes must proactively account for early years and primary contexts from inception, not as retrofit afterthoughts.

Create the conditions for growth

Even the most thoughtfully designed initiatives require enabling conditions. Our findings consistently emphasised constraints like staffing capacities and timetabling complexities that impede ECF programme delivery despite stakeholders’ strong belief in its value. We cannot ignore that capacity constraints often undermine the ECF’s broader efficacy. Sustainable impact necessitates funding the time for these activities to happen effectively.

Make standards consistent

The study additionally calls for revisiting the teacher standards. While it is important to keep the distinction between the ECF as a supportive development and retention strategy and the standards as a professional gateway assessment tool clear, updating the Teacher Standards to reflect contemporary ECF principles, for instance, would create a shared language for teachers at all career stages.

Steps are already being taken to address some of our findings. As a member of the CCF/ECF steering group I know better than most that progress in all these areas is coming.

However, success is needed now more than ever and if the ECF is to realise its full potential these reforms need to go further. The ECF can only deliver its full impact when participants are treated as trusted partners in an ongoing process of refinement – balancing high standards with the flexibility to adapt to unique contexts. It’s about creating a sustainable culture by promoting conditions for teachers to thrive.

As an exploratory first step, the report’s insights provoke vital dialogue – not least about moving towards a system that doesn’t rely so heavily on discretionary effort, and where  guaranteed entitlement can be assured for everyone.

The full report, Findings from the ECF Review, will be available here from 18.30pm today

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