Mortar attack on the chalkface

June 28, 1996

When teacher training is used as a political football you know the election season is on. No political party can afford to blame parents for lack of discipline in schools or for poor literacy skills because they are voters. The spotlight is even moving away from teachers as their electoral significance increases. The soft targets are yet again the teacher trainers.

Teacher training and higher education have been inseparable for nearly a century. Two major government reports - Robbins and McNair - have underlined the importance of this link. The establishment of the Teacher Training Agency was seen as an attempt to weaken the relationship and although this has not yet happened it remains a worry. It is important that Sir Ron Dearing includes the issues of teacher training in his considerations about the future of higher education. It is important for two reasons. First he would then be following in the honourable tradition of Robbins and McNair. Second it might help to protect teacher training from the worst excesses of politicians desperate to be elected on a Three Rs ticket.

The newspapers are full of references to returning to the 1950s with children in rows facing the blackboard. The dream of rightwing think tanks. I was at primary school in that decade in a class of 48 children. One teacher exercised discipline by throwing the hard-wood blackboard rubber at our heads and another by threatening mouthwashes with carbolic soap. Only two or three children a year passed the 11-plus. The 1950s were about the haves and have-nots and any attempt to resurrect those dark days will further exacerbate our desperate skills shortages and lead to further economic deterioration.

Thousands of our more able university graduates are turning their backs on a teaching career. Does any political leader seriously think that has to do with the methodology or curriculum of the university departments of education? It has much more to do with the constant attacks on the teaching profession, their low self-esteem and their crumbling environment. They are now expected to be social workers, police, and information technicians and when they slip up they have few friends except their own trade union.

The teacher training system has been subject to too much government tinkering. Pilot projects turn out to be political Trojan horses designed to satisfy a current whim. Everything that happens in teacher training is as a direct result of government decision-making. The Government has had quite a few years to get it right.

Even so, Gillian Shephard is the best secretary of state the Conservatives have had since they came into power in 1979 (and that includes Margaret Thatcher). She is a formidable opponent for David Blunkett and Don Foster. We have three talented people speaking for education so why is the education debate somewhere in the gutter?

Is the future for our teachers and children really in the hands of the extreme Tory right or is it election jitters which will settle down to a proper debate which will give us hope for the future? The teacher trainers do their best with fast decreasing resources and less job security. Colleagues with whom I have worked for my whole career are totally dedicated to enhancing the teaching profession and equipping teachers with the much needed tools to do a good job. They deserve our thanks and not the educational equivalent of the village stocks.

Rita Donaghy is permanent secretary of the Institute of Education student' union, and a member of the national executive of Unison and of the TUC general council.

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