Teaching: just another subject?

July 5, 1996

The recent outcry against the Government's plans to ask the Teacher Training Agency to develop a national curriculum for initial teacher training (THES, June 21) was extreme and misplaced. Once again we read of higher education threatening to take its bat home unless the rules ensure it is in command. I doubt that this is really the view of most providers of initial teacher training.

Initial teacher training must be about the professional preparation of tomorrow's teachers. The future wellbeing of this nation, and of higher education, depends on that. The involvement of higher education in the preparation of teachers cannot be on purely academic terms, nor reflect only the views of individual universities and colleges.

In playing its part, higher education helps ensure that students have the high level of subject knowledge without which it is impossible to teach effectively. I have no problem with the fact that higher education wishes to mark its contribution by giving academic awards such as the postgraduate certificate of education. But I am also clear that this is not the ultimate purpose of initial teacher training. Students must demonstrate that they deserve the award of qualified teacher status.

We need to put any debate about the new national curriculum for initial teacher training into context. It has been accepted for over a decade that it is right and proper for the Secretary of State for Education and Employment to publish criteria governing the award of QTS. The current criteria point in the right direction, by focusing on the professional knowledge, understanding, skills and abilities which our future teachers will need. But they leave too much room for doubt in key areas where we need clarity.

Students need clarity to help them prepare for their role and to underpin their entitlement to high quality training. But it is also needed by the providers of initial teacher training, who need to know what content they are expected to deliver and what standards the Secretary of State, the Teacher Training Agency and Ofsted expect them to meet.

Universities and colleges providing teacher training should welcome Secretary of State Gillian Shephard's announcement that greater clarity is to be introduced through a national curriculum for initial teacher training. We can be sure that it will not be like the first national curriculum for schools.

Literacy and numeracy in the primary phase are important priorities. Standards in both are in need of urgent improvement. Students must be taught how to teach a range of methods and the circumstances in which each is effective and ineffective. Too often, they are merely "introduced" to the range and then left to fend for themselves in their first teaching job. To stop short in this way lets down a whole generation of teachers and pupils.

The national curriculum will provide a new focus for standards which do need to rise. The current Ofsted reports on primary providers show much good and some excellent provision. But four of the 28 reports published to date - that is 14 per cent - contain one or more unsatisfactory grades, triggering the Teacher Training Agency's procedures for withdrawing accreditation. That rate of failure compares to only 2 per cent of schools that have been deemed by Ofsted to be failing.

Behind the national curriculum is an equally important issue - teaching as a profession. Teaching needs a professional structure, supported by national standards and, where appropriate, qualifications. That is why, with the help of those from inside and outside education, and following our advice to Mrs Shephard last summer, we have already begun work on drawing up national standards at four key points in the profession - newly qualified teacher, expert teacher, expert subject leader and expert school leader.

We have also drawn attention to the need for a concerted effort by schools and local education authorities in induction, and are piloting career entry profiles. All of these initiatives will underpin the professionalism of teaching, as will our emphasis on making teaching a research-based profession. These developments can only be good for teaching, good in attracting people of high quality into teaching and therefore good for the providers of initial teacher training.

I hope that no successful providers will quit initial teacher training. But higher education will sort out its own attitude. It will decide whether it sees initial teacher training as just another subject, to offer or withdraw on the same terms as every other subject. Or whether it wishes to help, by continuing to play its part in teacher education, to ensure that there is a strong school system supported by a high quality force of teacher professionals.

Anthea Millett is the chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency.

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