All students entering teacher training next year, she announced on Wednesday, will have to follow a curriculum which for the first time explicitly prescribes what they should learn and how they should be taught to teach it. Current arrangements simply state what a reasonable student should look like at the end of the course.
Mrs Shephard has asked the Teacher Training Agency to design a draft core curriculum for primary English and maths by the new year. This would take effect next September, with the curriculum for secondary English and maths, plus science for all age groups following in 1998. Content will be largely based on what inspection evidence from the Office for Standards in Education has shown to be effective.
Gillian Shephard's drive to recast teacher training accelerated in the spring after the publication of OFSTED's report revealing low standards of reading in three inner-London boroughs. She mooted the idea of a national curriculum and league tables for training colleges shortly afterwards.
Offering a foretaste of what the curriculum will look like, she said that in reading, students will have to be competent in teaching the structure, vocabulary, grammar and punctuation of Standard English and be shown how to use phonics in a systematic fashion before they can be awarded Qualified Teacher Status.
One of the criticisms in OFSTED's report on literacy was that teachers had not been prepared to use phonics. It is not good enough, said chief inspector Chris Woodhead on Wednesday, "for teacher trainers to reply that their students are exposed to some teaching of phonics - they must know how to use it." He said that once the profession got the message that phonics works, "they will realise that their previous antipathy was misplaced . . . the new curriculum represents the triumph of a much-needed pragmatism".
Anthea Millett, director of the TTA, denied that the curriculum represented an assault on academic and professional freedom: "Teacher training is a professional qualification, the students are not just doing an academic degree. The only objectors will be those who think that professionalism means being left alone; that era has passed.
"It is not enough to say that you introduce students to a 'range of methods' - would you be happy with a doctor who was free to choose from a range of methods while doing operations?"
The Education Secretary has also asked the TTA to include new requirements for student teachers to learn how to impose discipline in class and new courses for specialist primary teachers. The latter is intended to address weaknesses in subject knowledge which depress standards for the 8-11 age group, particularly in maths and science.
The curriculum, said Mrs Shephard, would clarify for teacher trainers what is expected of them and what inspectors would be looking for. She confirmed that work was also under way on performance tables in teacher training.
Labour's education spokesman David Blunkett said he found it extraordinary that it had taken the Government 17 years to tackle the issue. "Most people will be amazed that there is not already a core curriculum." Speaking on Radio 4's Today programme on Wednesday, he dismissed the announcement as a synthetic attempt to sound tough - "It doesn't amount to a bag of beans," he said, misquoting from Casablanca.
Among the teacher unions, both the Professional Association of Teachers and the National Association of Head Teachers welcomed the announcement, but Peter Smith of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said that a poll commissioned by the union found that 78 per cent disagreed with the idea that "politicians should tell teachers how to teach".
Nigel de Gruchy of the NASUWT said the plan was an attempt by Mrs Shephard to placate the Tory Right, and referred to OFSTED's own reports on primary initial training which show that in general "they are already doing what she says they should do".