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Teacher trainers hit back

Monday's Panorama programme on BBC1 was devoted to the seductively simple proposition that the key to raising standards in primary classrooms lies in rearranging the furniture so that all the pupils face the teacher and spend time trotting to and from the blackboard.

The programme also suggested that student teachers are being given the impression that whole-class teaching is "politically incorrect" and that university departments of education and teacher-training colleges are generally unwilling to relinquish the dogmas of 1960s child-centred education.

The vigour with which the universities reject these accusations is striking. Both tutors and students argue there is nothing revolutionary in the notion of returning to whole-class teaching.

Student teachers, they say, are required to familiarise themselves with all forms of classroom arrangements, and to know when to use them, while most primary schools never really abandoned whole-class teaching.

Ian Kane, chairman of the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers, says that so far, none of the OFSTED reports on primary teacher training "support the myth that training institutions are locked into the sixties - they show that the vast majority introduce their students to a variety of methods".

He regards the Panorama programme and the current panic about the standards in initial teacher training as demonstrated by Gillian Shephard's plan to introduce league tables and David Blunkett's recent announcement of Labour's intentions to overhaul training, as a synthetic debate about a non-existent problem. "It's standard election-year scapegoating," he said.

He added that chief inspector Chris Woodhead's assertion that primary teachers should increase their use of whole-class teaching from 25 per cent to 50 per cent across all subjects was "intellectually shoddy", because it is impossible to quantify accurately the extent to which teachers are using any one method. Comparisons with countries like Taiwan, he suggested, were meaningless unless other differences in the education systems and socio-economic context were taken into account.

Mr Kane's views were echoed by student teachers at Leeds University, which recently received a favourable report from Ofsted. While the two students who appeared on Panorama said that they were told off by their mentor-teachers in primary schools for using whole-class teaching, the Leeds students seemed to have had the opposite experience.

One of them, 24-year-old Kyene Doy, said that in both the schools she has worked in, whole-class teaching was the dominant method. She admitted however: "It depends how you define whole-class teaching; I don't think it would work if the teacher was standing up lecturing the class for the whole lesson, especially when you are dealing with seven and eight-year-olds."

Sarah Downing, 25, who is practising on a class of 41 children, was passionate in defence of current standards in ITT and primary education. "I've seen enough of what goes on in primary schools to know that whole-class teaching is standard practice; all good teachers know that you have to use a variety of methods, and whole class teaching is an important one of them."

The Government, she said, "has decided that there is a problem, now it is going round looking for evidence that fits the theory".

She praised the thoroughness of the grounding in literacy and numeracy on the post-graduate certificate in education course and argued that "the perception that teachers are not using all methods available is absolutely mistaken. "

Esther Bond, a secondary PGCE student, said that to contrast whole-class teaching with group work was artificial and misleading: "It's obvious that any good teacher begins with direct input and knows when the class are ready to do extension activities on their own."

Angela Anning, head of primary ITT, said that in reading they had taken care not to "drift with the fashion. We ask the students to understand why different approaches have arisen, and to examine to research evidence on what works and what does not." Phonics are much on the agenda here. Likewise, she says, students are encouraged to assess the effects of different classroom arrangements and teaching styles on how children learn.

Both Ms Anning and Colin Asher, director of initial teacher training at Leeds, felt teacher training was being misrepresented by "people with their own axes to grind". The real issue, said Mr Asher, was the shortage of teachers in subjects like maths and science and the danger that the quality of entrants to the profession "which has improved markedly over the years I have been here" will be deteriorate in the rush to recruit. "The myth that all children are learning through discovery in self-chosen activities is simply not borne out by research evidence," said Ms Anning.

She said that most schools would have no problem adapting to Chris Woodhead's proposal that they should increase whole-class teaching to 50 per cent. She thought that Panorama was correct in estimating that it is about 25 per cent at key stage one at present, but that it is already higher at key stage 2.

The type of whole-class teaching in Taiwan featured, she said, was "remarkable for the amount of high-level cognitive questioning, rather than lecturing. It's simplistic to say that whole-class teaching works while other methods don't. "

Ofsted has now inspected about half the 68 institutions offering primary teacher training, and 18 reports have been published. Not all of them have been favourable. South Bank University's department of education was given an "unsatisfactory" grading on three of the four areas Ofsted looks at. But the report says that the university has recently introduced improvements in all these areas.

The university's vice-chancellor, Gerald Bernbaum, said that the action plan required by the Teacher Training Agency was ready and that "all but the old guard" had co-operated happily with the improvements. He pointed out that the university, situated in the inner London borough of Southwark had particular problems. "We have a high proportion of mature students with family responsibilities who cannot travel far to schools. Therefore the choice of schools is more limited."

He was not unduly worried by a league table of teacher training institutions. "Students are often less critical and have many other considerations when they choose a course, such as where their friends or family are."

The OFSTED report has not had any effect on recruitment so far, he said.

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