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Institutions tremble on brink of grants review

So many promises were made at the recent launch of the Teacher Training Agency's corporate plan that one or two slipped by without much comment. The decision to scrutinise the money given out to teacher training establishments is a case in point.

This planned review of who gets what size of grant, although ignored by a wider public, has filled universities and colleges with trepidation. The unfortunate fact is that some are uncomfortably expensive to run, and others are not - a point which has impressed itself on the new agency and its chairman, Geoffrey Parker. He has described the funding disparities as "indefensible".

"Universities and colleges will have to justify courses which cost five times as much as similar courses, when that cost is not necessarily related in any way to quality," he told a conference of headteachers at the start of the year. "That's the state of affairs. Clearly to alter this indefensible position is a big priority of the agency."

Mr Parker's views are rather more colourful than the TTA's corporate utterances. These have been studiously non-committal. Such caution seems very wise given the size of the task ahead.

There are several problems confronting Coopers and Lybrand, the ubiquitous firm of consultants which was last month asked to carry out the review.

The first is establishing what is spent in the first place, and on what. While the TTA knows very well what it hands out to individual institutions, this bears little relation to the use made of the grant. Universities in particular expect a high degree of autonomy and have been free to spend their money as they will. Most, at the very least, have complex systems of cross-subsidy in place. Untangling the element specifically used for teacher training will be no mean feat.

As an indication of the differences involved, Government statistics suggest a low point of Pounds 800 per student while university costings indicate expenses at the top end of around Pounds 3,500. Accurate figures are extremely hard to obtain.

The second task, making judgments about quality, is equally fraught. Coopers and the TTA face competing claims. The older universities believe that their staff-intensive, academically high-powered education departments make an important contribution to the profession and its standing. The new universities, on the other hand, have been obliged to cram in large numbers of students at comparatively low cost and would like to see some of the imbalance redressed.

Should different training courses serve different purposes? If so, can Her Majesty's Inspectorate be expected to take the differences into account? Should Coopers and the agency rely solely on HMI's judgments about quality?

Most problematic of all is the wider context of shake-ups and shake-downs. The teacher training system has been destabilised both by the Government's decision to give schools a greater share of responsibility for the students and by the shortage of applicants.

Many universities appear unable to recruit enough students; and then unable to find schools willing to help with the training.

Will these institutions be penalised for failing to meet recruitment targets? asks John Howson, deputy director of the Education Department at Oxford Brookes University and a recruitment figures specialist. If schools within reach of a particular institution demand enormous sums of money to take part, will this be taken into account when the grants are handed out? And, crucially, will the TTA allow courses in shortage subjects such as maths, science and French to close down?

Such questions are becoming all the harder because the recruitment figures in maths, science, modern languages and music are worsening month by month. Coopers will certainly have to sweat for its own share of the TTA gold.

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