School report to government

February 7, 1997

Those of us with an interest in teacher training are nervously waiting to see what an incoming government might have in store for us. In the past decade reform has followed reform, more often, it seems, with the intention of challenging the position of teacher educators than of improving standards. A future Conservative government would seem to promise more of the same.

In the autumn David Blunkett, the shadow education secretary, sent shock waves through the system by appearing to agree with Gillian Shephard that standards were still inadequate and more fundamental reform was in order.

Last year, the Modes of Teacher Education team completed a five-year study in England and Wales. Our research, timed to monitor the fundamental changes brought about in the move to school-based training, included a questionnaire to a sample of graduates and their employing headteachers. Our research highlights the key issues for the next government. Nearly all course leaders and teachers supported the "partnership" model. It increased the professionalism of the courses offered to students; established closer working relationships between higher education and schools; and gave individual teachers and whole schools opportunities for professional development.

The same positive picture came from the students. Between 80 and 90 per cent of primary students considered themselves to have been well or adequately prepared to teach English, mathematics and science. At the end of their first year of teaching they felt equally positive about the quality of their initial training and their headteachers confirmed this view.

It is tempting to suggest that an incoming government should call a moratorium and let the system settle down. While we have some sympathy with this point of view we cannot go along with it.

The first difficulty concerns the fragility of a national system based on goodwill. That fragility was demonstrated by reports of high turnover among mentors (a quarter to a third each year) and the difficulties course leaders found in getting schools to join partnerships - half of all secondary courses and one-third of primary courses reported difficulties.

The overwhelming majority believed that the partnership model of training was more expensive and more demanding than traditional models and that there were insufficient funds to pay for the new demands made on schools. We concluded that either the next government needs to provide additional funds or the criteria governing the relationship between higher education institutions and schools need to be relaxed.

A second weakness is the variability of student experience that has come about. The Government and Teacher Training Agency response has been to introduce ever more bureaucratic systems of quality control and propose a national curriculum. Our evidence would suggest that the most successful partnership schemes are built on regular personal contacts between tutors and schools. Yet few institutions can afford this.

Given the devolved nature of training programmes, there may be a case for some form of national curriculum. But it should not be over-detailed and should emphasise both flexibility and breadth. A national curriculum that focuses only on "core competences" will necessarily have the effect of marginalising other key issues.

A final weakness revealed was the lack of a clear role for higher education. The overwhelming majority of respondents believed that higher education still had a major role to play in training; schools could provide vital practical experience, but this was not enough. If students were to learn effectively how to utilise the practical competences they were developing, they had to understand something of the principles on which they were based. That meant engaging with knowledge derived from theory, research and scholarship.

Our study also revealed the worrying degree to which the role of higher education has been undermined. The transfer of funds to schools has inevitably resulted in the extensive casualisation of higher education staff; staff:student ratios have deteriorated and opportunities for lecturers to visit schools have been curtailed.

This has become progressively more evident in TTA guidance on partnerships published last year and in the TTA/Ofsted inspection framework. We therefore suggest that the TTA should be abolished and its functions taken over by a general teaching council in which the contribution of both schools and higher education to professional development can be properly recognised.

Alternatively an incoming government must revise the TTA's remit to include a commitment to the role of higher education as well as schools.

Teachers and lecturers have struggled hard to improve the quality of what is offered to students. They are looking for a government that will recognise their achievements and back them.

John Furlong (Bristol University), Caroline Whiting (Exeter University), Len Barton (Sheffield University), Geoff Whitty and Sheila Miles (Institute of Education) are members of the Modes of Teacher Education Research Team.

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