Editorial - Debate is overdue, but where training takes place may not be the issue ..

Gerard Kelly

Volcanic ash, Ryan Giggs, Arnie's love child, teacher training and the end that wasn't nigh. Spot the topic that didn't set staffrooms alight last week. And unless Mr Giggs and the Terminator conclude that celebrity has too many downsides and decide to train as teachers, it probably won't any time soon. This is understandable. Qualified teachers have been there, done that, got the T-shirt and the student debt. It's history, and for some barely remembered ancient history.

If the topic comes up at all, discussion follows predictable paths: is teaching a vocation or a craft, are the brightest necessarily the best, and should there be a smidgen of theory along with the crowd-control techniques? The time one can spend boring colleagues to death debating those issues without making any progress whatsoever is astonishing. Even more remarkable, what is rarely asked is the best question of all: what is education for? This is because it is too difficult to answer and even when attempted does not count towards an Ofsted score.

One workplace in the country, however, is fascinated with teacher training. The Department for Education is so captivated with the issue that it is several months late delivering a verdict on its future (pages 26-27). We do not know what its review will recommend. But it's likely to focus on practicalities rather than metaphysics and nudge more trainee teachers towards nurturing their vocation - sorry, craft - in school rather than university. That may suit those schools that prefer to home-grow talent and graduates who want to learn and earn. But it is expensive and risks accentuating shortages in hard-to-recruit areas. Moreover, even the Government's favourite schemes - teaching schools and Teach First - depend in part on university expertise. Decimate that and the system isn't rebalanced, just KO'd.

And then there is the elephant in the staffroom. As ministers ponder and universities protest, there is the teensy weensy matter of applicants. As in lack of. Just as we have an overdue debate about training teachers, it transpires that fewer people than expected want to be one. Not a problem, says the Department. It's about teacher quality not applicant quantity, and the decline in applications is in line with cuts to secondary provision.

The Department may be right to be sanguine. But we are emerging from deep recession, a time when applications usually surge regardless of civil service calculations. This shortage looks ominous. If fees triple from 2012 and bursaries do not rise to compensate, the consequences for teacher training will be catastrophic. Was it this scenario that persuaded the Government to ease entry restrictions on overseas teachers? Or perhaps it has decided it loves immigration after all. In any case, pretty soon it won't be a question of how, where and what to teach trainees, but how to attract them in the first place.


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Gerard Kelly

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