Josephine Gardiner talks to the woman in the Teacher Training Agency hot seat
During her two years as chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency, Anthea Millett has acquired a reputation as the voice of reason amid the increasingly strident debate on standards and the quality of teachers. She will need all her cool in the coming months, for whichever party wins the general election, the creation of a General Teaching Council now appears certain. The next question is where its existence would leave the TTA.
The GTC is already part of Labour and Liberal Democrat education policy, and during the past week the Government, in a remarkable change of heart, has been edging towards a manifesto commitment to a GTC. On Sunday Gillian Shephard was reportedly "sympathetic" to the idea, and a Labour amendment to the Education Bill attracted support from Eric Forth in Parliament on Tuesday, though it was not passed. Malcolm Thornton, Tory chair of the education select committee, has also put forward a private member's Bill to set up a GTC.
Meanwhile, the Labour party is putting the finishing touches on its teacher training policy. According to Colin Pickthall, the MP who has written most of it, the question of what is to happen to the TTA has provoked disagreement, but "the policy document will fall short of saying that the TTA as a whole body will disappear, but it will be reformed". He said that he would like to remove the TTA's power to accredit and fund courses, but that Labour was likely to sidestep this question until after the election.
Anthea Millett will be forced to tread carefully around the GTC issue. In one sense, a body set up to re-establish teaching as a respected profession, guarding it against inadequate entrants, accords closely with what she has been trying to do at the TTA. She has been talking to all three parties about the issue and sees the head of steam that has built up behind the GTC as evidence that her messages about professionalism are beginning to sink in.
"I welcome any move that will raise the professionalism of teachers and I would hope to have a very vocal part to play in this, but the devil is in the detail." She says she will resist vigorously any attempt to remove the TTA's power to accredit and fund courses.
"Whether some of the TTA's functions would be taken over by the GTC, or whether the TTA would work within the GTC, it is crucial not to cut the link between quality and funding. This has been a powerful and effective lever in raising standards, allowing us to reward high-quality providers and show the others that they need to improve. Once you've got them by the finances, their hearts and minds will follow."
The TTA's control over accreditation and funding is what riles many of the university departments of education, who argue that it artificially separates education from every other subject. They want control to be returned to the Higher Education Funding Council.
The national curriculum for teacher training, which will be launched by Gillian Shephard within the next three weeks, should ensure that interest in teacher training remains high in the run-up to the election. It will set out new criteria governing courses, explicit guidelines for preparing students to teach English and maths, and new standards expected of newly-qualified teachers. Anthea Millett says she is prepared for "vigorous exchanges" about it, as she should be - the university vice-chancellors have challenged the legality of the Secretary of State's right to prescribe university courses, and the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Russell is said to be taking a keen interest in the implications for academic freedom. Also imminent is the formal launch on February 26 of the professional qualification for aspiring headteachers, which, she says, has inspired a gratifying amount of enthusiasm from teachers. She admitted that although there was no question of the qualification being made compulsory for heads, it was likely to become so by default because job applicants without it would be at a disadvantage.
Anthea Millett has drawn up a detailed wish list for the profession after the election, one of which is pay. She says that starting salaries for teachers (Pounds 14,000) have fallen behind average starting salaries for graduates (Pounds 15,300) and the gap widens after three years. She wants to see pay increases linked to the new structure of professional qualifications the TTA is designing, and suggests that an increased use of teaching assistants could "offer more flexibility in the way schools are staffed. Some classroom jobs are better done by assistants, and some GM schools are already going down this route".
She plans to be more proactive in attracting high quality applicants to teaching. The TTA will ask heads of university subject departments, particularly subjects where there are teacher shortages like science and maths, to identify undergraduates who would make good teachers. "We might consider targeting bursary money at that stage. Once they've graduated, its often too late.
"We also need to convince pupils doing GCSE and A-levels that teaching is a desirable profession to enter. This largely depends on the extent to which they see their own teachers as professionals I which brings us back to the GTC. "