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Concerns over quality of trainee teachers

Failure to recruit high-calibre trainee teachers is threatening the entire education system, according to Sir Ron Dearing's inquiry.

The section on teacher education includes worrying evidence on the quality of primary trainees, and expresses grave concern that universities may be scraping the bottom of the barrel to recruit students prepared to teach shortage subjects in secondaries.

It is highly critical of the Government's manpower planning and of the Office for Standards in Education's inspection of teacher training courses (see story, left).

It also reasserts the importance of higher education in teacher training and hints that the Teacher Training Agency's remit should be curtailed.

Professor Sir Stewart Sutherland, who was the first chief inspector at the Office for Standards in Education before Chris Woodhead took over, writes: "I believe that there is a danger that under-recruitment in some subject areas, combined with the relative low quality of entrants, may lead to a downward spiral throughout the education system."

The inquiry discloses dramatic variations between institutions: on one course, 90 per cent of entrants had A-level point scores of less than 10 (which means that the trainees had achieved one C and one D at A-level at best) while almost half the trainees at another had scores of 20 or more (two As, or two Bs and a C).

Overall a "significant percentage" had very poor A-level scores (less than 10 points). Only 4 per cent of entrants to primary PGCE courses had first-class degrees. At secondary level the situation is deteriorating and the quality of entrants generally compares badly with other professions. Evidence indicates that less than 40 per cent of secondary PGCE students have achieved upper-second or first-class degrees. The report hints that the quality of trainees is lower still in the shortage-subject areas - maths, technology and modern languages. The TTA told the inquiry that it would currently be necessary to recruit a third of all maths graduates to meet the targets for maths PGCE courses. The profession is also not attracting enough men, Asians or Afro-Caribbeans, the report says.

Raising the status of the profession is an urgent priority, says the report, and should be combined with a wider range of incentives and "a more imaginative use of pay scales". Minimum entry standards and new alternatives to the BEd and PGCE courses, with more stress on subject specialism, should be considered. A new qualification for teaching assistants is proposed. The report concludes that a new national committee should be set up specifically to review teacher training.

Sensible recruitment by universities and colleges is also undermined by a "lack of transparency" and "instability" in the Department for Education and Employment's target-setting system.

However, the inquiry found no evidence that universities are not doing a good job - instead, it criticises the system for checking course quality. Throughout the report, the importance of the universities' role in teacher education is affirmed.

While the inquiry acknowledges the efforts made by the TTA in recruitment, it suggests that there has been poor contact between the agency and the Higher Education Funding Council, resulting in heavier administration burdens for the universities.

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