Charlotte Mason College at the University of Lancaster, one of the oldest teacher training colleges in the country, has become the first training institution to be identified as failing by the Office for Standards in Education.
In a damning report, inspectors say that they found students' standards in English, mathematics and assessment unsatisfactory and that the college's arrangements for monitoring the quality of its courses were also poor. However, Charlotte Mason has queried the findings on the grounds that only 19 students (out of 778 on roll at the time of the inspection in 1995) were observed doing teaching practice.
The criticisms are mainly directed at the four-year undergraduate course (BA qualified teacher status). In English, the undergraduate course had "weaknesses in preparing all students to teach English". Students were asked to submit too little work for assessment and there was "evidence of over-generous marking". The students' own teaching competence varied from good to unsatisfactory, says the report, as did their knowledge of the subject. "Too many had a limited and superficial knowledge of English, particularly in . . . spelling, grammar and phonics."
Students were "insecure" about how to teach reading in the early years. In writing, they were competent in developing their pupils' sense of writing for particular readerships, but less so on traditional areas such as grammar. In mathematics, said the inspectors, tutors paid too little attention to addressing gaps in students' know-ledge of the subject. Students show "an over-emphasis on encouraging pupils to discover ideas for themselves without guidance" - a concern to which the chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, has addressed himself frequently.
Also on maths, too little time is given to arithmetic, and while many students showed competence in lesson-planning and class control, some of the lessons observed were boring. More than half the students had inadequate assessment skills in English and over a third had inadequate assessment skills in maths. "Only a minority of students marked pupils' work thoroughly," says the report, though oral feedback to pupils in lessons was good.
Charlotte Mason will now have to submit an action plan to the Teacher Training Agency addressing these problems, but according to the principal, John Halstead, there is no question of the college being closed down by the university. OFSTED will not re-inspect until the latter part of next year.
John Halstead sounded moderately bullish about the future of Charlotte Mason when the report was published last Friday. "It's not a pleasant thing to hear, but we're not falling on our swords." He said that he was "disappointed" that the published report was much harsher in tone than the oral feedback he had already received, "but I don't want to minimise the criticisms - many of them are justified". He also pointed out that the inspection had concentrated on English, maths and assessment, without commenting on other curriculum areas.
The college had been warned some months ago that the report was likely to be unsatisfactory and, said Mr Halstead, improvements have already been set in train. Staff changes have already been made, with more to come, and a new course, which will meet the latest Department for Education and Employment requirements, will begin in October.
The news of the report raises the question of how confident employers can be in the quality of Charlotte Mason's graduates. A spokesman for OFSTED said that "it does not necessarily follow that the teachers emerging from an 'unsatisfactory' course are unsatisfactory teachers." At present, there is no method of tracking teachers from specific institutions, but under the new inspection framework which was effective from the start of this term, inspectors have to monitor all newly-qualified teachers in their first year and record on the ob-servation forms where they trained.
But John Halstead said that there had been no drop in student recruitment since rumours about Charlotte Mason began to circulate last November, and that the college had always had favourable reports from schools employing its students.
A spokesman for OFSTED said the inspectors were concerned only with the 167 fourth-year students. The 19 (chosen by the college) who were assessed in the classroom were a fair sample of 11 per cent, the spokesman said. Assessing the students on teaching practice was only one component of the inspection; many more students were seen being taught at the college. "The comments made by the college were taken into account in the final report. But it was made clear in the oral feedback that the college was underscoring in all four key areas. "