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Staff training chief seeks lull in rhetoric

Anthea Millett, the chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency, pleaded for calm this week after the chief inspector's announcement that up to half of the primary training courses are to be re-inspected.

Giving the third annual education lecture at the University of London's King's College - entitled "Pedagogy, the last corner of the secret garden" - she suggested that the real issue concerning the nature of teaching was being sidelined by rhetoric and false polarisations. "The opposing camps hurl slogans such as 'child-centred', 'chalk and talk', 'negotiated learning', 'teacher-dominated', 'whole-class teaching' and 'group work' at each other. "

The whole issue of teaching, she said, "has been sidelined in the national debate about other educational priorities" - such as assessment, the curriculum, inspection and appraisal.

Meanwhile, pedagogy, "a word we cannot even agree how to pronounce" is "languishing in the secret garden". This, she said, was because "national bodies" had in the past struck an unspoken deal with teachers - "we'll stay off the pedagogic grass provided we can landscape everything else". But it was vital that teachers' assumptions about practice were discussed, because "a privately-arrived-at pedagogy is no more valid or professional than a privately-arrived-at procedure for heart surgery".

She rejected criticisms of the TTA's proposed national standards for four key points of a teacher's career - newly qualified, expert, expert subject leader and expert school leader - and denied that the new national curriculum for teacher training represented an attack on the profession's independence.

"It is possible and necessary to be explicit without resorting to a string of reductionist competencies."

Primary teachers need a better grasp of subject knowledge, she said; teachers need to be five steps, not one step, ahead of their pupils, and there was a need for more subject specialists at key stage 2. She also called for greater use of setting, at primary as well as secondary level. Too great a diversity of ability within classes is handicapping teachers: "Do our teachers not already have enough to cope with? If we want them to be Olympic champions, must we insist on tying their shoelaces in this way?" She insisted that training institutions should welcome the Secretary of State's announcement that the standards required of new teachers should be made more explicit.

Ms Millett assured her audience that the new curriculum "will not be like the national curriculum for schools - lessons have been learned. Nor will it dictate what happens on each course between 10 and 11 each Monday morning. " She did not elaborate on the requirements beyond reiterating that literacy and numeracy in the primary phase would be top of the agenda.

While her attack on "false dichotomies" and "rhetoric" could perhaps be interpreted as a veiled reference to the combative style of her counterpart at the Office for Standards in Education, she joined the chief inspector in emphasising that five of the 34 reports published so far (out of 67 inspected courses) have had one or more unsatisfactory grades: "I hope no one will seek to defend that rate of failure."

She stopped short, however, of supporting Chris Woodhead's case for reinspecting the primary courses.

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