Should we rethink skills tests? a) Yes b) No c) Maybe

Tougher testing for new teachers is blamed for fall in recruitment

Nick Morrison

Changes designed to toughen up basic skills tests for new teachers have been blamed for an "unprecedented" failure to fill primary school training places.

Reforms introduced two years ago mean that teachers must pass the tests before they embark on their training, rather than at the end, while candidates who fail three times must wait for two years before they can be entered for retakes.

The changes were intended to raise the bar for entry to teaching, but one consequence has been to reduce the number of people applying to train, according to James Noble-Rogers, executive director of the Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers. "We're getting reports of people struggling to fill undergraduate primary courses. It is pretty much unprecedented and we think it's because of the skills test," he said.

The Department for Education has this week published a wide-ranging review of initial teacher training. The report recommends an evaluation of the effectiveness of the skills tests - something the government has said it will consider.

Mr Noble-Rogers said some trainees could be reluctant to take more tests straight after finishing their A-levels, while others may have failed twice, fearing the same result a third time. He acknowledged that there was a case for taking the tests before starting training, but said there should be some flexibility - particularly for those embarking on three- or four-year undergraduate courses.

"It shouldn't be beyond the wit of man to devise a system where somebody applying for an undergraduate course could have a bit more time to take the test," he said.

Kevin Mattinson, head of the School of Education at Birmingham City University, said he was aware of 30-40 students who had failed to take up places this year because of the skills tests. As a result, recruitment to the university's primary PGCE course is about 10 below its target of 237, while approximately 15 of 197 undergraduate primary places are unfilled.

Professor Mattinson argued that outstanding skills tests were "the single biggest factor" behind the failure to hit recruitment targets. "It's the first time in years that PGCE primary came in below target - we even used up all our reserve list - and I don't think we've ever failed to recruit to undergraduate primary before," he said.

Recruitment to secondary courses had also been affected, he added. The university had planned to increase its cohort in design and technology - a shortage subject - but ended up missing its target when students failed their tests. Professor Mattinson said some prospective students had reported problems with scheduling tests, while others complained that the testing environment was unsuitable.

Skills tests are generally taken in the same centres used for driving theory tests. The separate maths and literacy exams last 48 and 45 minutes respectively.

Probably the most feared element is the mental arithmetic section of the maths test, in which trainees have 12 minutes to answer 12 questions. The students listen to the questions on headphones and are unable to pause or rewind.

"You can say, if they can't pass the test should they be coming into teaching? But some students struggle with the test and go on to become good teachers," Professor Mattinson said. "We should be moving to raise standards, but the skills tests are very crude. I would rather have a higher level of literacy and numeracy through people demonstrating it in their training, not a 48-minute test."

Josie Booth failed the maths test once, before passing the second time to take up a place on Birmingham City's PGCE primary course. "I really struggled with the maths. I was out of practice and my confidence wasn't great," she said. "In the first part, you need to hear the question twice because there's so much information to take in, and then you have half a minute to work out the answer, so it's pretty scary."

Natalie Gould, also on the primary PGCE at Birmingham City, sailed through the numeracy test but found the literacy one daunting. "I'm dyslexic so I had extra time, but the spelling test is such that it doesn't matter how much time you have. I just sat looking at each word for an extra two minutes thinking `That still doesn't look right'. It was pretty stressful," she said.

Although she passed first time, Ms Gould questioned the point of the tests when teacher training courses already have a minimum requirement of a C grade in GCSE English and maths. "I don't really see what they're trying to achieve other than put extra stress on us," she said.

The shortfalls are exacerbating fears of an impending teacher recruitment crisis. In its annual report, published last month, Ofsted says it is "concerned" about the supply of teachers. According to the inspectorate, the number of entrants to the profession has fallen by 17 per cent over the past five years.

Department for Education figures published just before Christmas show that 7 per cent of teacher training places for this academic year were left unfilled, with significant shortages in maths, physics, modern languages and design and technology.

A DfE spokeswoman said teaching continued to be a popular career and was attracting record numbers of "top graduates". She added that 93 per cent of candidates had passed the skills tests since the changes were introduced.

"We have made it clear that we want to attract the brightest and best candidates to teaching, and the changes to the skills test were introduced to ensure we maintain the high quality and status of the profession," she said.

`Arm teachers' against bad behaviour

Practical guidance on how to deal with unruly pupils should be an integral part of teacher training, according to a report.

The Carter review of initial teacher training, published this week, says that learning how to manage behaviour effectively is vital for trainees. But some initial teacher training (ITT) providers are reluctant to broach the subject, telling the review that "behaviour management cannot be taught" and "trainees need to develop their own strategies".

The review, carried out by Sir Andrew Carter, headteacher of South Farnham School in Surrey, argues that teachers should "start their careers armed with tangible strategies and techniques to draw upon", and calls for behaviour management to be included in a new framework of core content for ITT programmes.

The core content should also include training in evidence-based teaching techniques, child and adolescent development, assessment and special educational needs, the report says. More subject knowledge should be covered, it adds. The government has said it will commission an independent group to look into developing the new framework.

But Professor John Howson, an honorary research fellow at the University of Oxford, said it was "difficult to see" how more subject knowledge could be included without ITT programmes being extended.

Another of the report's recommendations is that qualified teacher status should be promoted as the "essential component" of ITT, with the traditionally university-based PGCE labelled as an "optional academic qualification".

The government is urging schools to take a leading role in training teachers under the School Direct programme. But a source said schools minister David Laws had blocked the relabelling of the PGCE as the Liberal Democrats did not wish to "downgrade" it. Helen Ward

Back to basics

How would you fare in the basic skills tests? Here are some sample questions.

Literacy: spelling

Select the correctly spelled word from the alternatives.

1. ______________comments worked wonders for the team's confidence.

a) Complementary

b) Complimentary

c) Complamentary

d) Complamentery

2. For pupils to do well in school, their goals must be______________.

a) achievable

b) acheivable

c) achevable

d) achievble

3. Even after the Rugby World Cup, pupils still ______________ football.

a) praferred

b) preferred

c) prefered

d) preffered

Numeracy - mental arithmetic

4. Pupils are asked to stretch a spring to extend its length by 40 per cent. The original length of the spring was 45cm. What should the length of the extended spring be? Give your answer in centimetres.

Numeracy - on screen (calculators allowed)

5. On a school trip, a teacher needs to be in Ostend no later than 18:00 to catch a ferry. She expects the coach to travel from Brussels to Ostend, a distance of 120km, at an average of 50mph. Using the approximation of 5 miles equals 8km, what is the latest time that the coach should leave Brussels? Give your answer using the 24-hour clock.

Answers: 1. b; 2. a; 3. b; 4. 36cm; 5. 16:30

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Nick Morrison

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