Is there a crisis in teacher training? Yes, but not the one featuring in Government pronouncements. Is there a need to eradicate the legacy of the 1960s? Yes, but which legacy?
Education minister Gillian Shephard has announced plans for a national curriculum for teacher training, to improve English - especially the teaching of reading - mathematics and classroom management. It is hard to think why anyone would fail to cooperate, or why it requires the Government to exercise first-time powers to prescribe content in higher education. None the less this initiative is accompanied by the standard snide propaganda that has surrounded the many recent changes in teacher training.
Higher education providers have conscientiously implemented changes, even mutually contradictory ones. We have been nothing if not compliant. Moreover, during volatile change we have sustained and expanded recruitment - until recently.
We have come through a series of inspections: Longitudinal, New Teacher in School, Secondary Sweep, Partnership, Primary Sweep, with what would pass in most jobs for flying colours. In the Primary Sweep, which concentrated on English and mathematics, Ofsted findings rated over 90 per cent of teacher training provision as sound, over 50 per cent as good and a fair proportion as very good. Crisis? What crisis?
Meanwhile, Government "sources" have routinely characterised us as "trendy", "Marxist", "lefty", "theoretical", and philosophical (sic) - consistently failing to provide students with class management skills, even those who spend two-thirds of their course in schools. Most lecturers enter teacher education in mid-career, so 1960s trendies must by now be marching on their Zimmer frames. Frightening statistics are plucked from the skies. Mrs Shephard has found 46 per cent of new teachers lacking in basic skills. In 1993 it was 33 per cent, revealed allegedly in the New Teacher in School report. Actually it was per cent but a Department for Education spokesperson explained that she had rounded it up. It is the way that you tell 'em. More people die in hospitals then anywhere else; if we closed more hospitals would fewer people die?
It is no surprise, therefore, to find the current positive Ofsted reports on primary teacher training rubbished amid talk of re-inspection. A replay! And if that does not work, presumably a penalty shoot-out.
I remember the 1960s. The basic qualification to enter teacher training was five O levels plus an ability to find your way to the school gate. We have paid for those poor standards. That is the decade's true legacy. Today, A level scores are low and too few good honours graduates in the shortage subjects enter teaching.
This disappointing situation is fast deteriorating. After three years of warning signs, applications for 1996 have crashed, especially in secondary shortage areas. Yet we need a rise of 50 per cent by 1999 to serve a growing school population. The same early signs that preceded the secondary collapse are now showing in the primary field.
Why is this? The responsibility for attracting good quality entrants lies with the Teacher Training Agency and there has been muddle over bursaries and the abolition of the TASC (Teaching as a Career) Unit. Unfortunately too, in its first initiatives the TTA lost itself in a labyrinth of funding and market-speak. To be fair, that was its political brief and it is now addressing the issue of teacher supply seriously. However, one has to ask what there is in the rhetoric of recent political debate to attract the best of our young people, or mature second-career aspirants, into teaching? When they read about 15,000 failing teachers, or that a course of teacher training is rubbish - or closing - why should they bother?
The TTA should give a brave lead. I recognise that it is a Government agency, required to implement policy, while Mrs Shephard's latest suggestions deserve serious attention. But when they come wrapped up in insulting language, massaged by dubious statistics, dribbled out in murky leaks, I wish that the TTA would challenge the crass falsehoods, which risk creating an atmosphere in which not only the brightest and the best, but many of the rest, will be driven away to other professions.
Unless the Government addresses the real crisis in teacher training meltdown could occur and it will return our schools to an impoverished staffing situation. Back to the 1960s.
Ian Kane is chair of the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers and head of Didsbury School of Education, Manchester Metropolitan University.