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Ethical primary policy?;Opinion;News and opinion

The Government's initial teacher training plans aren't working - they currently require institutions and would-be teachers to lie or put their professional futures at risk, says Colin Richards.

PRIMARY teacher education is not in good shape. This is partly because of a series of punitive inspections by the Office for Standards in Education, which has led to the closure of courses and some institutions. It is also the result of an impossible set of requirements laid on initial teacher education.

Currently all institutions or organisations engaged in initial teacher training are required to ensure that all trainees recommended for the award of Qualified Teacher Status meet a number of pre-determined standards. The requirements for would-be primary teachers come to a staggering 768 for most trainees and an unbelievable 851 for those on three to eleven courses. (Since I haven't passed the proposed TTA national numeracy test, my figures may not be absolutely accurate).

Such requirements have to be met in the space of less than a year by primary postgraduate certificate in education students. Failure to meet any of those 750-odd requirements could prevent a student achieving Qualified Teacher Status. To guarantee that "trainees" have met those requirements, institutions not only have to provide courses targeted at those standards but also are expected to ensure that the achievement of these standards by each individual trainee is audited and backed up by appropriate evidence.

There is widespread disquiet in both higher education institutions and in schools providing school-centred initial training over the nature of some of the current standards. There is even greater anxiety over the sheer impossibility of ensuring that each of the standards has been met and of providing adequate evidence for their achievement.

In a ballot recently conducted by the National Primary Teacher Education Conference more than 90 per cent of those responding believed they were being forced to comply with the unreasonable belief that all such requirements can be, and are, being met.

The conference asked Electoral Reform Ballot Services to conduct that ballot to ensure secrecy and impartiality in its conduct and in the reporting of its findings. The ballot had to be a secret one because for an institution or organisation to admit publicly the impossibility of meeting all 750-odd requirements could result in its trainees being deprived of the award of QTS. It could also be declared non-compliant and might lose its accreditation for initial teacher as a result of action by the Teacher Training Agency.

The clear implication of the ballot is that government policy in relation to initial primary teacher education is not working. An unknown proportion of newly-qualified primary teachers may not have achieved all of the mandatory standards.

The disquiet is not the result of whingeing from proponents of "old" teacher education or from new-style "dark forces of conservatism". Teacher education has probably embraced more change, more regulation and more inspection than any other sector of the education service. The concern arises from educational, logistical, demographic and, most importantly, ethical considerations.

The TTA and the Department for Education and Employment need urgently to reconsider whether courses and trainees can be validly judged through a performance measurement related to 750 odd competencies.

They have to address the logistical impossibility of any institution being able to ensure that all successful trainees meet each requirement.

How many young people will be attracted into teacher preparation courses when they realise that failure to meet just one out of 750 odd requirements (plus a poor performance in the three national tests) could scupper their chances of entering teaching? How many have already been put off by knowledge of these requirements? How many will "drop out" of courses as these requirements bear down?

Most important of all, the DFEE and TTA need to face a major ethical issue. Primary tutors, teacher-mentors, newlyqualified teachers and "trainees" who believe that the official requirements cannot be fully met are caught up in a pernicious form of professional hypocrisy which makes them unable to admit the fact publicly for fear for their professional futures.

It forces them to collude in what they see as professional falsehood. The result is emotional distress and debilitation which inevitably affects the quality of their professional work as well as their personal lives.

The DFEE and the TTA need to adopt an ethical policy for initial teacher education. The suggested consultation gives them an opportunity to listen, and act upon, the concerns of providers. NaPTEC hopes that the results of its ballot will persuade them to enter into a dialogue to arrive at a position which is educationally sound, politically acceptable, accountable, feasible and, most important of all, ethically defensible.

Colin Richards is a professor of education and chair of the National Primary Teacher Education Conference.

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