Support, don't just report

October 2, 1998

The Teacher Training Agency will survive only if it starts being nicer to institutions, says Mike Newby

Flicking through the new national performance tables of teacher training colleges, I wondered how bright a future their compiler, the Teacher Training Agency, faces. Its survival rests on its being able to claim, by the time of the next general election, that standards have risen among teachers and that the nation's staff rooms are not half empty.

By that time, we will have a General Teaching Council with a brief to advise the government on much to do with teaching, including entry standards and career development. The council will speak for teachers. The TTA can never hope to match authority of that kind. Unless the profession and the TTA speak with the same voice on these matters, there could be trouble ahead.

How significant will universities and colleges be in influencing the agency's future? This is not a wayward question: universities and colleges contract with the agency to supply more than 90 per cent of all new teachers. They also contribute to developing the skills of those already teaching. But earlier this year, the agency decided to withdraw funding from about half of universities and colleges for their continuing professional development programmes. Despite this miscalculation, it seems clear that the agency cannot achieve its aims without higher education and its school partners, but it is equally clear that the reverse is not the case. This is assuming we do not wish to go mad and sever entirely the essential connection between universities and schools.

In effect, the agency franchises teacher training to universities and colleges, which deliver the TTA's version of training. Unless colleges calibrate their programmes against the TTA model, their accreditation is withdrawn. Two tests are made: does the training comply with the franchised template? Does it meet quality standards? Government inspectors at the Office of Standards in Education report the answers to the TTA. If Ofsted says "no", the money stops.

Few academics have found working with this model appropriate. Universities are motivated by innovation and experiment. Academics contend that - because good teachers are autonomous, informed professionals far more than they are trained technicians - learning to teach is a multifaceted undertaking, inimical to an externally imposed uniform approach.

We need to reconcile these differences, and the ball is in the TTA's court. The agency will succeed if it invigorates the profession - by supporting universities and colleges in bringing to the classroom people of talent and by funding schemes offering teachers professional development far exceeding superficial skills training. Universities and colleges are experienced in exactly the kind of work needed.

The TTA's agenda should include a determination to entrust the sector with greater freedom to get on with its work, to support more and regulate less. Universities and colleges are its most valuable resource and the agency needs to say so, often.

Mike Newby is the new chairman of the University Council for the Education of Teachers.

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