School of thought

November 8, 1996

There is much food for thought in Michael Barber's proposals for reforming initial teacher training (THES, October 25). Though perhaps it is too strong to say that "initial teacher training is in a mess", it is certainly sorely troubled. However, the real problem is not of training but of teacher supply.

Schools face an imminent crisis if something is not done urgently, and the fixations of the present government and its quangos (mainly phonics and number) are expensive, headline-grabbing diversions from the much more serious problems waiting just outside the classroom door. So Professor Barber is right in arguing that we need some radical thinking if we are to ensure for the future a committed, well-educated and capable teaching profession.

The present perturbations result in part from a lack of quality in the training institutions many years ago. However, old ways of thinking remain in today's funders and policy-makers. These upheavals threaten to continue for as long as new quangos rediscover old anxieties. Paradoxically, the Office for Standards in Education has found that quality nowadays is, by and large, satisfactory or better in most providing institutions. Professor Barber proposes a different kind of training regime in the universities, but it would be foolish to deny students committed to teaching the thorough and rigorous preparation these routes already offer. His proposals for university-based teacher training should be considered as additional, not alternative.

Once graduates enter schools as teachers, however, his ideas offer much more. The abolition of the probationary year was, as he says, disastrous. The more intelligent idea of a slow and thorough apprenticeship, in which new graduate teachers could earn and learn while teaching, would do much to improve quality and may also attract those who decide to become teachers later in life.

Professor Barber does not shrink from touching on salaries. But matters of salary need to be more prominent than this if the supply crisis is to be avoided. We have to make those considering teaching a genuine offer: that, providing they reach certain accredited professional standards, they will find in teaching a well-paid career. Only then will we attract the best people into the profession, and keep them there. I would extend Professor Barber's "MOT" idea much further: after (say) ten years in successful practice, a teacher should be expected to take a professionally-based masters degree, almost certainly modular, and unquestionably focused on his or her work in school. Salary would then rise significantly.

In return, society would have schools in which teachers had been progressively educated to and qualified at a high level. The universities, no longer the Government's whipping boy, would be closely involved with schools in supporting and assessing teachers.

Extended thus, Professor Barber's ideas would allow people to see in teaching the "noble profession" he describes, so that the crisis in teacher supply would be reversed as standards in schools rose. Expensive - but less costly than the looming alternative.

Michael Newby Dean of the faculty of arts and education University of Plymouth

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