Fitting a quart into a pint-and-a-half pot

Is three years long enough to train a teacher? One Welsh college has its doubts and is offering students a choice. Ken Jones considers the issues. In September, there will be a major change in primary teacher training, and it will have come about with almost no public or professional debate or comment. A significant proportion of students beginning their training in England, and a substantial majority in Wales, will be embarking on three-year undergraduate courses, rather than the traditional four-year degree.

This is happening at a time when the role of the primary teacher is more complex and demanding than ever, and when subject knowledge and professional expertise have to be developed in a far more sophisticated way than before.

It is widely acknowledged that in all the challenges facing primary education - such as raising literacy and maths standards and overcoming disaffection - the quality of the teacher is paramount. And the response of the Teacher Training Agency in England and of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCfW) is to "encourage" a reduction in the length of training from four years to three. In looking at what such courses are required to do one is tempted to ask "where's the beef?".

How has this come about? Is it an evolutionary development arising from experience of such undergraduate courses for the last thirty years or so? Hardly!

Four year courses have become the norm, highly rated by students, employers and HMI. Indeed the HMI discussion paper Teaching in Schools: The Content of Initial Teacher Training, published in 1983, stated that the time available for professional training in a three year BEd was not adequate.

With the creation of the Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education in 1983, came the promulgation of the new "accreditation criteria". These, over the years, have been modified and refined and are now embodied in a series of "exit competence" requirements which all newly qualified teachers are expected to achieve.

Most of us can live with that. A national school curriculum in some ways requires a degree of standardisation in the training process, as long as that does not preclude or discourage variety and innovation. The notion of defining competences has been worthwhile as an exercise in analysis and definition, certainly in the context of working more closely in partnership with schools. However, we must continue to recognise that good, creative, stimulating, effective primary school teachers are more than the sum of a set of competencies.

What is more difficult to accept is the changed philosophy the government and its agencies are applying to the whole process of initial teacher education. In the retrospectively halcyon days of Sir Keith Joseph there was an acceptance, indeed a conviction, that the best teachers were knowledgeable, thoughtful, reflective, and above all well educated. Hence the need for a four-year course that contained two years of specialist subject study "at a level appropriate to higher education", as well as comprehensive professional preparation.

The latest criteria have one concern - that the newly qualified teacher is able to "deliver" the National Curriculum. Thus the emphasis is on subject knowledge across the curriculum, coupled, preferably, with a degree of specialist knowledge and the development of pedagogic skills. Even within this change of approach it would be possible to achieve something very worthwhile, and well fitted for the purpose, given adequate time.

The latest Circular states that "I the Secretary of State believes that further three-year courses should be developed, and that they will prove increasingly popular with students." It is significant that no academic or professional rationale of any kind is offered, but it is not too difficult to work out the underlying reason. The same circular says that "the Secretary of State will if necessary take steps to encourage this most cost-effective form of preparation for teaching".

One can be sympathetic to the plight of students who struggle financially. But that is a separate issue. It is not a reason to cut education and training time in the manner proposed. This is, simply, an attempt to economise, and issues of quality seem to have become a second order priority.

What has been our response to these demands? Initially some resistance, and some have clung to that principle. Others quickly became nervous, as we did in Wales. If we didn't offer a three-year course, how would we compete for good students? Might we not face the funding or numbers consequences of not being considered cost-effective? What student in his or her right mind would want to study on a four-year course if three-year honours degree courses were available elsewhere?

After a struggle with our consciences, and a long period of debate, uncertainty and heart-searching, and strong feelings of moral and professional concern, the colleges offering undergraduate courses in Wales decided to discontinue four-year courses. This was promoted not least by a strong steer from the HEFCfW, which also offered a 15 per cent funding enhancement for all students enrolled onto the three-year courses.

The Welsh Office reacted with some slight alarm at the absence of variety. After all, evidence from HMI had confirmed the success of four-year courses. Perhaps it was not all that clever to put all our training eggs into a very experimental basket.

Earlier this year, and rather late in the day, we at the Swansea Institute reviewed our decision. We were not at all confident that we were doing the right thing. We decided to offer two courses, a three-year and a four-year course. Both would be presented for validation as fully classified honours courses. The three-year course would be a generalist one, addressing the whole curriculum and emphasising the core subjects. The four-year course would permit a significant degree of specialist subject study in addition.

Year one and two of the courses would be taken in common, students opting for a further one or two years of study at the end of year two. Our intention is to let "the market" decide - surely an intention that this government would applaud. The market we refer to is a dual one of student choice and employer preference, and we are keeping our and their options open.

It has been and still is a difficult time. We believe we are doing the right thing. We want to retain training of the highest quality, and believe strongly that this requires adequate time. Shorter courses, for traditional student entrants, are in grave danger of falling between the two stools of specialism and generalism.

All this could have profound consequences for the quality of primary teacher training, and ultimately of primary teaching itself. Could we have a quality time bomb ticking away?

The consequences of these changes will not become evident for a number of years. Where's the beef? Could this be our mad cow disease?

Ken L Jones is Dean, Faculty of Education and Humanities, Swansea Institute of Higher Education.

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