36 weeks stretched to limits

30th January 1998 at 00:00
One of the most bizarre news items that The TES has ever carried concerned a 27-year-old Hull man who appeared in court in 1963 charged with failing to pay duty on 42 bottles of spirits. His solicitor argued that he had been laying in a stock of drink because he was about to begin a teacher training course. Strangely enough, the explanation was rejected and he was fined Pounds 75.

Even in the swinging Sixties it was unwise to mix drink with teacher training. Today it is out of the question because would-be teachers need to remain pin-sharp and focused in order to cope, particularly if they are on the ultra-compressed 36-week postgraduate certificate in education course. It remains to be seen whether the national training curriculum that the Teacher Training Agency is slotting together will add to students' burden. But it is easy to understand why training institutions have mixed feelings about the new specifications drawn up for secondary English, maths and science, primary science and the use of information technology in subject teaching.

A year ago there was wild talk of universities pulling out of teacher training rather than suffer the indignity of an imposed curriculum. (Any such withdrawals are more likely to be triggered by financial problems than high-minded considerations.) But most teacher-educators accept that if there is a national school curriculum there should be some standardisation of training.

They will probably approve of the IT proposals, even though no one has explained where the thousands of computer-literate teacher-mentors will spring from. A welcome mat should also be laid out for the primary science document. England may be riding high in international league tables for primary science but many teachers still lack the expertise to teach the subject properly.

Another plus point about this week's consultation documents is the lack of jargon. But as these papers are extremely detailed and several inches thick, the TTA will inevitably be accused of excessive prescription. For example, it is specified that teachers of A-level biology must understand the microstructure of mitochondria and chloroplasts. How very different from the 18th century when trainee schoolmasters needed nothing more than a "pious and devout frame of spirit" and "normal" physical features.

The renewed emphasis on phonics, mental arithmetic and interactive whole-class teaching will irritate those who still associate such strategies with right-wing educational dogma. But it is the secondary science proposals that will be most contentious. The science advisers who were invited to assist the TTA are "extremely alarmed" that the agency has ignored their advice, and recommended that teachers should teach a minimum of two science subjects at key stage 4, rather than one - even though the vast majority of science graduates have specialised in just one science. The scientists are convinced that this stipulation will reduce teaching quality and further depress recruitment to a subject area that is perennially short of good-quality candidates.

The TTA will struggle to counter those arguments because even PGCE students specialising in other subjects such as music and English acknowledge that science trainees - and future primary teachers - already have the heaviest workloads. If the TTA wants to squeeze yet more content into the PGCE course it must think seriously about extending it.

Another option is to revive a proposal advanced by Margaret Thatcher when she was education secretary: newly-qualified teachers should be allowed to spend a day a week on training - away from the classroom. It was regarded as a good idea 26 years ago, but was never adopted. Perhaps it is time to return to a Thatcherite education policy after all.

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