Did anyone hear an ominous hammering at around 11 o'clock on Wednesday morning? Three months ago the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals said that if Gillian Shephard announced a national curriculum for teacher training she would be driving the last nail into the coffin of some universities' departments of education. Having been starved of funds and subjected to constant rule changes, they would conclude that this was one affront too many.
In fact, it will be surprising if any university gives the last rites to its education department just yet. The audacious scope and speed of the Education and Employment Secretary's reforms will temporarily stun the teacher-trainers. But the universities will probably bide their time, and wait to see what the outcome of the promised consultations and general election will be.
A full-frontal attack on Mrs Shephard's proposals would certainly be ill-advised. Teacher-trainers can be heard echoing Dickens's complaint about education factories that turn out cloned teachers "like so many pianoforte legs". But a recent TES survey showed that more than 80 per cent of headteachers favour a national training curriculum.
The teacher unions have not cheered the Secretary of State's plans, but they also see merit in the emphasis on literacy, numeracy and subject knowledge. A new qualification for heads of department and subject co-ordinators will be welcome, too, if it helps to map out a clearer career path for ambitious teachers. Nevertheless, one has to ask why the reforms are being introduced now. Is teacher training as inadequate as it is portrayed? Is this the way to remedy its faults?
Mrs Shephard continually justifies her proposals by quoting a 1992 survey by the Office for Standards in Education which found that nearly 50 per cent of newly-qualified teachers were dissatisfied with their training. This will not surprise Reading University researcher Birgit Pepin who interviewed maths teachers in England, France, and Germany and discovered that none of them had been impressed with their training (see page 16). But the statistic has surprised Professor John Furlong of Bristol University and other academics who have been been carrying out exhaustive research into teacher education for the Economic and Social Research Council. They have found newly-qualified teachers, and their heads, to be much more satisfied than Mrs Shephard suggests.
But if OFSTED's findings are unimpeachable, why has the largely favourable national survey of primary teacher education that the inspectors conducted earlier this year not been published? As that report appears to have been shelved and a tougher scale for grading training institutions is being introduced it does appear that the Government is broadcasting only those findings that bolster its agenda.
The reality is that teachers could probably be given a better professional preparation in not only literacy and numeracy but information technology, personal and social education, special needs, music, technology, RE, PE, art, and English as a second language. But there is a limit to what can be achieved in a 38-week primary PGCE course - half of which is spent in school. As one teacher-trainer said: "We're not talking about putting a quart into a pint pot. It's more like a gallon."
If standards are to improve either the PGCE course will have to be extended or a more structured training programme will have to be continued into one or more probation years. More money must be invested in school mentors, who currently get only two or three days' training even though they are key players. Tutor visits to schools will have to increase because some secondary PGCE students never see a lecturer during their 24-week school placement. Staff-student ratios will have to improve, too, and the most experienced teacher-training staff, who are too often distracted by administrative and finance-generating commitments, must be allowed to spend more time lecturing.
But perhaps the biggest contributions to raising standards would be a salary structure that confirms teachers' professional status, and an insistence on higher entry qualifications. Although teaching attracts more high-fliers than some like to think, teacher shortages are allowing too many people to slip through the BEd basement door with two grade Es at A-level. Someone should lock and bolt it without delay.