Her Majesty's Inspectors' recent sweeping inspection of all primary teacher training institutions should have been able to tell us. Yet their boss, Chris Woodhead, clearly feels they have not. He is sending them back, accompanied by hand-picked headteachers, to a cross-section of colleges for a more detailed look at literacy and numeracy training.
If he wants to know, for instance, just how and how much phonics is taught and learned at different institutions, his frustration is understandable, because the reports do not, by and large, give this level of detail. They tell us, instead, where students plan in line with the national curriculum, are introduced to a range of approaches, can match work to children's abilities, are able to manage a classroom well, and that they work on letter sounds and phonemes with pupils.
In other words, they make judgments on quality - which is what they were meant to do. These inspections were set up 18 months ago to look at a narrow range of four areas, including English and maths, and give grades of 1 to 4 to each in order to help the Teacher Training Agency allocate funding. If these reports were insufficiently detailed, Mr Woodhead, as chief inspector, must take some of the blame.
Apparently, the exercise was not undertaken by the Office for Standards in Education with much enthusiasm at the outset. It was only later that Mr Woodhead must have seen the potential of what he had on his hands: comparable evidence about all the teacher-training institutions. Unfortunately, it did not tell him what he wanted to know - or to hear. The HMIs gave primary teacher training colleges a relatively clean bill of health. Mr Woodhead says openly that he simply does not believe that the picture is that rosy. He seems to want not just more, but different information.
The message is not just that the agenda has moved on, and now we need to know more about good and inadequate practice to inform such Government initiatives as the teacher-training curriculum and the literacy and numeracy centres. It is also that the chief inspector does not trust the HMIs' judgments, or the training colleges. These reports did not separate the trendies from the rest.
With research showing that school-based training is not catching on, the reformers have now got to turn back to the colleges. If the teacher-training colleges are doing a good job, the whole chain of blame for falling standards is broken. Acceptance of a broadly positive picture would make it hard to justify the reform of teacher training, and anyway, Mr Woodhead is convinced that all is not rosy in the garden.
The whole exercise smacks of haste, and key questions remain unanswered. Why will the same team of inspectors get different results in a new inspection of the same colleges? How will institutions be selected for a revisit? Why isn't the information Mr Woodhead wants in the inspectors' notebooks? How will standards be raised in a system full of demoralised HMIs and teacher trainers? If OFSTED wants to identify good (and bad) practice, isn't there a better way?