Where no one has gone before

November 11, 1994

An open letter to Anthea Millett, the first chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency.

Dear Anthea -- May I offer you a warm welcome to a seat that will be either hot or pleasant depending largely upon your own courage. The Teacher Training Agency had a stormy gestation and your appointment completes the birth.

Many in higher education, and especially in teacher education, were hostile when the Government first proposed the agency in their Blue Paper of September 1993. It represented a radical and unargued departure in the funding of higher education and the government of initial teacher education. The agency has been given control over all the higher education funding for initial teacher training, now to be ring-fenced. That attacks the principle that universities should have discretion over the disposal of a general grant.

The agency has also been given the power to decide at which institutions training places, both undergraduate and postgraduate, will be placed within a global number decided by the Department for Education. This adds the power of allocation to the power of the purse; but it does not end there. The agency will also have the power, formerly vested in the Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, to advise the Secretary of State whether any particular institution's courses meet the criteria laid down by the DFE -- that is, the power of accreditation which effectively decides whether a particular institutions will continue to exist, or not. In exercising this power the agency will depend mainly upon reports from the Office for Standards in Education and for the first time Her Majesty's Inspectors will have a legal right of entry to universities (under the 1994 Education Act).

But there is more even than all this. The agency is instructed to promote the policies of the Secretary of State. At the moment these include the introduction of three-year degree courses in six academic subjects combined with professional training for intending primary school teachers. That is a massive reduction of academic quality in the preparation of primary teachers who currently must take either a three-year honours degree followed by a one-year PGCE, or a four-year concurrent course in not more than two academic subjects, together with professional training.

No justification of the reduction has been offered. It is unbelievable that in the equivalent of two years students will be able to study six subjects at a level appropriate to higher education, still less at honours degree level. But the agency must encourage such courses. It has all the power needed to do so through accreditation, direction of training places, and allocation of funds.

Another current government policy is to pass more of the training over to the schools -- not only classroom management and curriculum planning, with which teachers always felt comfortable in partnership with higher education, but also academic subject application. Many teachers feel this is predatory upon their role as teachers of the pupils in the school. It requires them to become teachers of adults at a level of subject content and knowledge of the academic literature which they have not had the chance to acquire.

Consequently even the best conceived school partnership schemes have frayed at the edges as schools meet unavoidable events by reducing time spent on students (properly their lowest priority) and the less well-laid schemes are falling apart, reverting to pre-Circular 9/92 arrangements. And this has only affected secondary education so far. The similar world in primary education, required by DFE Circular 14/93, must be in place everywhere by 1996 at the latest.

So, the new chief executive will need courage. Intellectual courage to believe and act upon the evidence of HMI reports and surveys about the strengths and weaknesses of initial teacher education (including the school-based aspects) and not the unargued and unsubstantiated assertions of the Government. Moral courage to stand up to the ideologues, both inside and outside the agency. And personal courage to form a working relationship with a chairman who, though lacking direct experience of higher education or teacher education, is by cast of mind a liberal pragmatist with a deep concern for intellectual values.

I can think of few -- very few -- who might have been available to be chief executive who have your formidable mind and experience. Please maintain that disinterested concern for evidence that has been the historic hallmark of HMI. To the extent that you do, you will not only gain the renewed respect of those of us in the service, but also avert the restratification and down-grading of the teaching profession which some aspects of current policy will otherwise ensure.

With best wishes, John Tomlinson The author is vice chairman, Universities Council for the Education of Teachers, and director, Institute of Education, University of Warwick.

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