Judging by some press reports, it would appear that this week's revamp of initial teacher training has more to do with fashion than phonics. In fact,Yves St Laurent does not rate a mention in the Teacher Training Agency documents. Neither do scruffy teachers.
It is, however, unsurprising that some confusing messages emerged from Tuesday's launch of the proposed curriculum for student teachers or that opponents and supporters of the initiative have both found ample ammunition for their arguments. It is evident that Anthea Millett, chief executive of the TTA, really does regard these proposals as a move towards a new professionalism in teaching. She also seems genuinely keen to garner as many responses as possible during the 13-week consultation exercise. But it is also clear that the Government sees this initiative as another way of reminding voters how intolerant it is of slipshod English teaching, and how macho it is about maths. Yet again the suggestion is that all would be well if only there were more emphasis on interactive whole-class teaching, mental arithmetic and phonics, and if teachers were more literate and numerate.
This was certainly the message the Department for Education and Employment conveyed in a statement on Tuesday: "Trainee teachers will learn the three Rs and how to teach them, in a major shake-up of teacher training . . . " That sounds like the voice of a downmarket tabloid rather than the measured tones of a government department. It is also highly misleading.
Had it been more concerned about accuracy the DFEE would have pointed out that most teacher-training institutions are already doing what is now being prescribed, a fact that Ms Millett appeared to acknowledge. It might also have conceded that while a small minority of new teachers are still leaving college with a shaky grasp of basic teaching tools, most primary teacher training courses were given a clean bill of health last year by the Office for Standards in Education.
Gillian Shephard did not, however, refer to these inspections at the launch of the new curriculum, preferring to point to a five-year-old OFSTED survey which found that nearly 50 per cent of new teachers were dissatisfied with their training. It was also strange that she should complain that the Conservatives had inherited an uncontrolled teacher-training system from Labour 18 years ago. But critics who say that her Government should have done something about teacher training long ago are also wrong. Conservative ministers have been reducing the autonomy of training institutions since the Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education was set up in 1984. The number of hours that trainers must devote to English and maths has been stipulated, increased importance has been placed on subject knowledge and teaching skills, and the competences that student teachers should acquire have been specified.
Now the emphasis on subject teaching and classroom management is being increased still further. But it is the highly detailed lists of required skills and knowledge that catch the eye this time. For example, the TTA says that students must be taught how to teach "the synthesis of consonant phonemes into consonant blends, eg b-r-ing = br-ing". The agency explains that it has gone into such fine detail in order to avoid ambiguity. But breaking down the teacher's job in this mechanistic way leaves the TTA open to the sort of criticism levelled at the equally atomised national vocational qualifications.
It also remains to be seen whether these lengthy "tick lists" will prove practicable, given the short time that primary PGCE trainees spend in college - 20 weeks in a 38-week session. But lack of time is by no means the only obstacle facing anyone trying to improve the quality of new teachers. Trendy teacher-trainers aren't the problem either, whatever the politicians or press might say. The fact is that more of the best graduates must be attracted into teaching (in countries such as Taiwan, teachers are drawn from the top 10 per cent of the ability range). But that is not going to happen while most teachers are not paid professional salaries or treated with the respect that other professions enjoy. After the Houghton pay settlement in 1974, teachers were earning 37 per cent more than the non-manual average. Now they earn 1 per cent less.
There are no statistics on how their public standing has fared since then,but it seems safe to assume that it has also dipped. And that is something that should trouble everyone because recent research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has confirmed the commonsense view that teachers who feel valued perform better in the classroom. Perhaps someone should pass this information on to Government ministers and some of their officials.