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OFSTED faces legal threat over training

Universities warned this week that they would go to court if primary teacher-training courses are downgraded as a result of the new inspections announced by the chief inspector, Chris Woodhead.

The Office for Standards in Education plans to revisit "between a third and a half" of the 67 universities and colleges offering primary teacher training. It intends to use new criteria because, it says, the first round of inspections by HM Inspectorate did not scrutinise trainees' competence in teaching reading and maths with enough rigour.

The revisit (OFSTED insists that it is not a "re-inspection") will include courses that have already received top gradings in the first sweep, as well as the mediocre and unsatisfactory.

The new inspection teams will include a co-opted primary head with expertise in literacy and numeracy. The courses selected for the revisit have yet to be announced.

The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals says that it is seeking legal clarification of what the position of downgraded courses might be, given that other institutions will be allowed to continue under the gradings awarded in the first inspections.

They argue that it would be unfair if some courses lost money and suffered damage to their reputations because they had been singled out for new inspections under new criteria and grading scale.

A spokesman for the Teacher Training Agency confirmed on Wednesday that the new inspections would affect decisions about funding and accreditation of courses: "New inspections mean new evidence; it would be absurd if we did not take into account new evidence from OFSTED. " A spokesman for OFSTED stressed that the purpose of the revisits was to probe the teaching of reading in more depth, adding that what was done with the evidence was a matter for the TTA.

OFSTED has said that it will be using the seven-point scale currently applied to schools rather than the "very good", "good", "sound" and "unsatisfactory" gradings used in the first primary initial teacher-training inspections.

Chris Woodhead said last week that this was because he was suspicious of how inspectors had interpreted the definition of "sound".

David Taylor, head of the teacher-training team at OFSTED, said: "'Sound' is a word I think we don't wish to attribute 100 per cent normal criteria to. "

Mary Russell, secretary of the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers, said that any downgrading would make it more likely that some universities would pull out of teacher training. "The TTA do not believe us when we say this, but we are being pushed closer and closer to the brink. "

Any reduction in the number of teacher-training places would obviously be worrying at a time when the TTA is charged with increasing teacher supply by 50 per cent for secondary and 34 per cent for primary by 2000.

Chris Woodhead said last week that OFSTED would now "focus relentlessly on the quality of teacher-training institutions . . . we don't believe everything is rosy in the garden".

The universities are asking why HMIs were not instructed to focus on literacy and numeracy in the first sweep, which has cost about Pounds 1 million.

"Are they to be inspected and re-inspected until enough are considered to have failed to suit the unfavourable perception of teacher training that is currently being urged on the public?" asks UCET.

Top-scoring universities contacted by The TES all insisted that HMI did examine the teaching of reading thoroughly. The London Institute of Education, for instance, regarded as the flagship institution, was recently told that it had been given the highest marks by HMI.

The director, Peter Mortimore, said that inspectors had scrutinised lesson plans and classroom practice and had interviewed staff, students, and all the headteachers of the 15 partner schools.

"There was ample chance for them to discover whether or not students were able to translate theory into practice," he said.

He emphasised that the inspectors "were extremely thorough in their inspection of English, maths and classroom methods - the whole thing was a demanding and rigorous exercise".

Ian Kane, chairman of UCET, said that some universities were reviewing their funding agreement with the TTA which includes a clause allowing the "the TTA and its agents" access to the university premises. The present agreement only came into effect recently. Mr Kane says some institutions had either not returned the document or are "still negotiating the clause".

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