Millett plans lessons for all trainees

21st February 1997 at 00:00
Anthea Millett, chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency, can draw satisfaction from the fact that no politician or educationist has so far attacked the substance of her new national curriculum for trainee teachers - which, she hopes, will show both aspiring teachers and the public what a demanding job it is.

Critics have said the exercise was unnecessary, that it is a threat to academic freedom and may be illegal, or that the notion of defining standards of grammatical and mathematical fluency for tomorrow's teachers is insulting because it implies that today's are incompetent. But nobody has challenged the idea that students should leave primary teacher training courses confident in their own knowledge of the structure of language or the habits of numbers, and clear about how children grasp these things.

As she launched the new standards on Tuesday, Education Secretary Gillian Shephard added a punitive edge, ensuring a crop of back to basics headlines the next day. "For too long many children have been let down by teachers who do not have a sufficient grasp of the basics. Through no fault of their own teachers are being allowed to leave some teacher training colleges without the essential knowledge to ensure that all pupils learn basic literacy and numeracy skills. This has got to stop, " she said.

But she stopped short of a full-blooded attack on the dangers of child-centred education, nor did she announce a new testing regime to police the new standards. The TTA later confirmed that it would be up to the colleges to ensure that students met the new standards.

The consultation period for the curriculum ends on May 8, after the general election. If Labour wins, it seems unlikely that they would want to more than tinker with curriculum content. Shadow education secretary David Blunkett accused the Government on Tuesday of failing to take his advice on including phonics and interactive whole-class teaching earlier: "It is unbelievable that it has taken 18 years and seven secretaries of state to get this far," he said. Labour wants to bring back the induction year and is committed to a General Teaching Council. It is not clear where the latter would leave the TTA and its funding or standard-setting role.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, gave the announcement an unqualified welcome, but the National Association of Head Teachers, representing most primary heads, questioned its rationale. The reliability of the Office for Standards in Education report which found low standards of literacy in inner London (precipitating anxiety about teacher training) had been questioned, said spokeswoman Rowie Shaw. She added she hoped "the implication by the Government that teachers are an ill-educated, ungrammatical and innumerate group who cannot discipline children will not add to the present low public perception of teaching as a career".

The Liberal Democrats have allied with universities on the question of the possible threat to academic freedom posed by the new curriculum. Don Foster said that there was a "fundamental legal question" about whether the TTA could allocate money on the basis of how well an institution stuck to TTA-prescribed course content. He said that parliamentary lawyers would test if safeguards to academic freedom had been built in to previous legislation. Conrad Russell, the Lib Dem peer, is also concerned about the legality of the curriculum.

Mary Russell, secretary of the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers, said that to tell university departments what they should teach sets "a dangerous precedent".

Classroom teachers and students contacted gave a qualified welcome for the curriculum, though they are less sure that it will succeed in attracting better entrants or enhancing the image of teaching.

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