'Bright ideas' that will lead to a primary shortage
It might be expected that an organisation with the title Teacher Training Agency (TTA) would be taking steps to ensure a good supply of high quality, well trained new teachers. It is surprising, to say the least, to find the Agency publishing proposals, Training curriculum and standards for new teachers, which would have the effect of reducing the supply of new primary teachers to a trickle. The proposals, currently out for consultation, are in two parts, a draft national curriculum for initial teacher training (ITT) in primary mathematics and English plus new "entry standards" for the award of qualified teacher status.
The national curriculum element in the proposals represents the start of a promised series of attempts to specify in fine detail exactly what students in courses of teacher education and training, secondary as well as primary, must be "taught and able to use". For those of us who were involved in developing and implementing the schools national curriculum there were important lessons to be learned about the process of design and implementation. Yet the TTA would appear to have learned nothing. In at least four respects their exercise in national curriculum planning is clearly inferior to the far-from-perfect way in which the schools national curriculum was developed.
First, the subject working groups of the early l990s were attempting to relate what they were prescribing to the time available for teaching and the contexts in which learning would take place. Yes, they typically overestimated what was possible in a given proportion of curriculum time, especially in primary schools, and came up with a pint-and-a-half to be fitted into the pint pot of time available. But at least they tried to plan for the awkward realities of classrooms and schools. With the ITT national curriculum there is no evidence of any attempt to plan for the realities of initial teacher training, including the two very different contexts of one-year postgraduate (PGCE) and three or four-year initial degree (BEd) courses.
Second, the process of drafting the schools national curriculum was markedly more open than has been the process of drafting its current ITT counterpart. Those who were appointed to the working groups took the trouble to offer a rationale for what they proposed and added their names to the proposals when published. There were even one or two teachers involved to brief the majority of group members who had little experience of classrooms. With the TTA's national curriculum for ITT we are not told who has drawn up the proposals, nor is there any clear rationale for what is prescribed. It is difficult to believe that anyone who has had substantial experience of initial teacher education and training has had any significant influence on what the TTA is putting forward.
Third, with the schools national curriculum there was at least a plan as to how the outcomes of the educational process would be measured. Now, in the late l990s, everything is, of course, conceived of in terms of qualifications and "competences". In the wider context of vocational education the national vocational qualifications model of competence-based assessment, and its GNVQ variant, have been heavily criticised. The national curriculum for ITT neatly sidesteps such problems by not having a model at all. The many pages of things which new teachers are expected to know and do are apparently to be assessed by each ITT course in its own way; not a recipe for either clarity or consistency.
The assessment dimension of the second element in the Agency's proposals, "entry standards" for new teachers in each of the nine primary school national curriculum subjects (ten in Wales), has also not been thought through. Those responsible for courses of ITT will in future be expected to vouch for the fact that new primary teachers have a GCE A-level "or equivalent" in their chosen specialism "in those aspects of the subject taught at key stage 1 and key stage 2". Perhaps the GCE boards or the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority could help us out by devising new tests of those aspects of A-level history or PE or art that are taught in primary schools? There will presumably also have to be another set of new tests to check whether every new primary teacher has attained the required level 7 in every primary school national curriculum subject, with a special bonus that the required standard in information technology is to be a level higher at level 8. Then, when the tests have been prepared, ITT schemes will need to find the time, presumably at the expense of time spent on developing professional skills, to administer them. As a closer reading of the TTA documents reveals ever more of these idiocies, teacher educators are astonished that a responsible Government agency could put forward proposals which are so badly framed and so unrealistic in terms of curriculum time, assessment practice and teacher supply.
And those same teacher educators, already engaged in what the Office for Standards in Education and Office of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector in Wales have confirmed is largely high quality preparation of new teachers, are to be expected to implement all this on a time scale which is the most obviously unrealistic feature of what the TTA is proposing. The consultation period ends on May 8 in England (May 22 in Wales) so we can perhaps hope for the revised proposals in our hands by late June. I can recall much criticism from teachers that they were not allowed enough time to plan for, prepare and resource the implementation of each of the schools national curriculum subjects. But I do not recall any of the subject orders being published as late as the June prior to the September in which they were to be introduced. And schools could, once they had received those final orders, go ahead immediately with rethinking their curriculum and their teaching. With HE-based partnership schemes of initial teacher education and training, time is needed for institutions and their partner schools to negotiate changes and then for the revised courses to be revalidated.
To sum up, the national curriculum part of the TTA proposals is seriously flawed but it is the entry standards which would, if implemented, bring the training of new primary teachers to a sudden, grinding halt. It is of course arguable that, in an ideal world, primary teachers should possess a GCSE grade C in English, mathematics and science plus at least a level 7 in every schools national curriculum subject except modern foreign languages, but from where are we to recruit the polymaths able to meet all these conditions? And, if student teachers do not already meet the required conditions, where are we to find the time, for example in a PGCE course maximum of 20 weeks tuition, to begin to fill the gaps in their knowledge and understanding? The proposals would, if implemented, result in the loss of many excellent primary teachers because they could not meet one or more of the TTA's conditions for entry to the profession. Indeed, it is all-but certain that most courses of primary initial teacher education and training would close because there would be too few applicants capable of meeting the conditions.
For a number of years we have heard right-wing critics, with little respect for evidence, seeking to denigrate and destroy university-based teacher education. Now we are having to respond to an onslaught from the TTA bureaucrats who seem to believe that, if they put a number of ill-thought-out "bright ideas" into a glossy folder and send it out for consultation, that is an adequate response to the serious question of how to promote higher standards in initial teacher education. Is it too much to hope that, in a post-election climate, policy-makers in the Government and its agencies may start to view initial teacher education and training not as a political football but as a complex, difficult process which requires careful attention to curriculum planning, organisation, and student learning? Only if that happens will it be possible to make real progress in developing the knowledge, understanding and skills of new teachers.
Richard Daugherty is professor of education and head of the department of education at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. He is a former chairman of the Curriculum Council for Wales.