Ministers may have agreed to edit the list of 'must-have' skills for new teachers, but not enough to satisfy their trainers. Fran Abrams reports
Not long ago, stories began to circulate in the teacher-training world about students arriving for their end-of-year assessments with suitcases. Had they despaired of completing their courses? No, they were carrying the evidence they needed to prove they could demonstrate all the "competences" now required of a newly-qualified teacher.
According to those who have counted them, there are around 850 things a primary school teacher must be able to do on starting his or her first job. For secondary teachers the figure is lower, maybe around 300. Just to quote one small example, every new teacher must have covered 18 finely-calibrated pages of detail on information technology, including: "Coping with everyday problems, eg, checking the power is on." Knowing how to fulfil the demands of the document does not present too much of a problem. Demonstrating that knowledge does, teacher educators say.
In a delicious irony, even the former chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, has added to the chorus of disapproval. "Balls. It's total balls," he told the Daily Telegraph this month. "It's been taken into absurd realms by mad bureaucrats. We need a real drive to restore sanity."
Although ministers have now agreed to slim down the Standards for the Award of Qualified Teacher Status, introduced in 1998, there is still intense anger in the teacher-training world about them.
There is also a feeling that the competence-based approach, which sprang in part from a management consultants' model of professional skills which started life in the United States, is here to stay despite a consultation on reform of these standards, announced last month.
For although the vehemence of the voices raised in teacher training against the level of detail in the current arrangements seems to have brought a partial change of heart, there is a more general trend towards competence-based learning in teachers' professional development. All staff now have to demonstrate their abilities in this way as they move through their induction process and on to the benchmarks necessary for headship, or to become advanced skills teachers.
The standards for teacher training may be about to get slimmer, but they are not going away. And that causes extreme frustration in some quarters.
Ted Wragg, professor of education at the University of Exeter, has been a leading critic.
"There's nothing wrong with asking whether people can manage a class or explain things clearly," he says. "The problem arises when you subdivide it until it becomes, 'can hold stick of chalk in right hand'. It's the worst kind of Gradgrindery."
So what exactly are these standards? Drawn up by the Teacher Training Agency and enforced by the Office for Standards in Education, the main document runs to 12 pages of broad-brush principles with which most training institutions have no serious argument.
They include such things as having a detailed knowledge and understanding of the relevant national curriculum programmes, and being able to plan their teaching in order to ensure that pupils progress well.
They also list nine Acts and circulars with which students must be familiar, including the Race Relations Act, the Children Act and the Health and Safety at Work Act as well as the Teachers' Pay and Conditions Act.
But the real crunch comes in the annexes. There are seven of them, ranging from 18 to 31 pages. The section on information and communications technology must be covered by all trainees. Those going into secondary English, maths or science must work through a further document relating to their subject, while those planning to be primary teachers must cover annexes on all three subjects.
And this is why some teacher educators are angry. "Of course new primary teachers need to know how to identify and blend sounds into words, eg: C - A- T, cat," they say. But do they really need it spelled out?
Secondary teachers are required, naturally, to have a high level of knowledge in their specialist subjects, but this is not laid out in quite such painstaking detail. So an English teacher must understand dialects and other phenomena as well as knowing how to use non-fiction and the media, while a maths teacher must be competent in mathematical language and must be able to recognise reasons for common mistakes. A science teacher should have a good knowledge of a range of topics including biochemistry, cellular processes, genetics, evolution and taxonomy.
In addition to all this, all trainees must sit a computer-based numeracy test and a literacy test, requiring such skills as working out how many additional books to order when the stockroom is looking bare, and what the final cost will be if orders of more than a certain number are discounted.
All these things are important, the training institutions agree. But why is there not, as there is in Northern Ireland, a further non-statutory annexe listing personal and professional qualities, such as a real enjoyment of being with children? And though the standards say teachers must be able to motivate pupils, how many times must they do so before they can tick that box?
The Teacher Training Agency has always insisted that it was not necessary for teacher educators to take such a tickbox approach to the standards. Indeed, if a college with 200 primary trainees assessed and gathered evidence for each requirement separately, it would have to complete more than 160,000 tasks. The TTA says they should be taken in clusters instead.
However, training institutions say another reason for anxiety is Ofsted. Inspectors tend to require detailed evidence that targets are being met, they say.
Professor Mike Newby, chair of the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers, says institutions risk having their funding withdrawn if they do not comply.
"When the word that best describes teacher education is 'compliant', I think we have come to a pretty pass. Is that the best we can say about our teaching service?" he asks.
All say, though, that they hope the new chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency, Ralph Tabberer, will be prepared to listen to their pleas, and that the relevant minister, Estelle Morris, appears to be sympathetic.
A TTA spokesman is circumspect, though. "We are trying to make this more manageable - you can always do better," he says. "But the quality of teaching is going up, and you could argue that that is the effect of improved training. The quality of newly-qualified teachers is as high as it's ever been, so we must be doing something right."
WHAT THE GOVERNMENT EXPECTS FROM EVERY NEW
* Know when the use of ICT would be effective
* Expect pupils to use ICT
* Demonstrate knowledge of setting up equipment such as connecting a printer to a computer with the correct driver
* Cope with everyday problems such as checking the power is switched on
* Know that information takes up memory, for example, a colour image takes up more space than a black and white one
PRIMARY ENGLISH TEACHER
* Learn the importance of pupils' learning skills at word level, through phonics, spelling and vocabulary, at sentence level, through grammar and punctuation, and at text level, through comprehension and composition
* Know how to teach pupils about phonemes and graphemes - the letters that make initial dominant sounds
* Understand that word order influences meaning, and be able to teach pupils that putting the object before the subject in a sentence gives greater emphasis
* Understand technical terms such as digraph, trigraph and rime
PRIMARY SCIENCE TEACHER
* Know that scence is interesting and intellectually stimulating
* Know that a predator is an animal that preys on others
* Know how to use words and phrases such as "compare", and "draw conclusions"
* Know the life cycle of flowering plants
* Understand the role of batteries and other components in electrical circuits
* Appreciate that "blocking the light causes a shadow"
PRIMARY MATHS TEACHER
* Understand the skills needed to recognise and use numbers, including counting
* Know that subtraction is the inverse of addition
* Know that a + b = b + a, and that a x (b + c) = (a x b) + (a x c)
* Know how and why algorithms work
* Know that a mathematical term can define a class of items: for example that the word "pentagon" represents all five-sided polygons
* Recognise common errors such as misreading the scale on a ruler, starting with 1 instead of 0