Chances for professional development face severe curtailment following the Teacher Training Agency's withdrawal of funding from 50 per cent of the universities and colleges that provide in-service training.
Teachers in the South-west are already discovering the implications. Combining a full-time job with extra training is set to become an even greater challenge in the region, because one of the main providers, the University of Plymouth, has lost pound;455,000 of INSET funding.
Money was previously allocated by the Higher Education Funding Council, but the Teacher Training Agency claims existing training has not put the needs of teachers and pupils first. Funds are now being granted on the basis of bids the TTA receives from universities and colleges.
"I can't understand why a tried-and-tested system is being scrapped," says Wendy Ash, a special educational needs co-ordinator at a Penzance primary school. Mrs Ash is in her final year of an MEd course at the University of Plymouth, which has a well-established special needs department offering a wide range of courses all over the South-west.
Seminars for her course take place in St Austell, just an hour's drive away. In future, the nearest university departments offering similar expertise in special needs will be at Roehampton, in London, and Leicester.
Plymouth University's school of graduate studies in arts and education, in Exmouth, has forged close links with local education authorities such as Devon, Poole and Bournemouth. Together, they have developed courses teachers want.
Local authorities and teachers have helped plan the SEN options, for instance, which range from courses for special needs co-ordinators working in mainstream schools to training for teachers of children with severe learning difficulties. Some of the training modules tackle issues raised by the Government's Green Paper on special needs provision.
"We've maintained quality by talking to teachers," says Dr David Parker, a course director who is a former primary head. "As a result, they feel the courses are relevant to their lives and teaching."
Lecturers are particularly annoyed that the TTA has ignored the university's excellent track record. Money has been allocated solely on the wording of the bids, says Dr Gordon Taylor, head of the school of graduate studies in arts and education.
The university is planning to keep INSET courses going for next year, but it fears that by 2000 it will be unable to maintain staffing levels.
"Lack of funding is bound to erode what we offer," says Dr Taylor. "It's no use the TTA telling us we can bid again for funds in three years' time. It will be too late then."
Dr Taylor also predicts that the university will have to increase the charges on its masters courses by 50 per cent. The school of graduate studies is considering INSET courses for nurses and community workers, as their professional development courses can still be funded by the higher education funding council, unlike training for teachers.
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If the TTA could see the pressures that already exist for teachers doing in-service training, it would re-think its policy," says Nadia Rice, who teaches children with special educational needs in a mainstream primary school.
Mrs Rice says reducing the number of centres offering INSET can only make things worse for teachers. She recently completed her MEd at the University of Plymouth after six years' study and at a cost of pound;5,000. During her final year, she took a part-time job so she could spend one day a week writing her up 25,000-word dissertation.
Long journeys to seminars after work would have been even more arduous if the university had not offered some sessions at a centre in Taunton.
"It's an appalling system," says Mrs Rice. "It's almost as though you're being penalised for wanting to improve your professional skills. You give up your own time, pay for your own travel and make a big emotional and financial commitment. It puts a tremendous strain on your family and partner."
But Mrs Rice says a further degree is becoming increasingly important as teaching jobs become more and more insecure. "An extra qualification is becoming more or less essential for older women. They need something extra to offer. Schools are reluctant to take them on because they are expensive," she explains. "As a special needs co-ordinator, you are also expected to have much information at your fingertips, and you need training for that."
Mrs Rice has a new job running a unit for children with special needs attached to a primary school. She is convinced her MEd helped her get the post.