Teacher training is the wrong target

28th February 1997 at 00:00
Despite school-based teacher training, the Teacher Training Agency and intense inspection, teacher training is still seen as a major cause of Britain's alleged deficit in educational achievement. Low reading skills are but one of the recently attributed responsibilities -astonishing since a recent Office for Standards in Education survey found little wrong with training for teaching reading and reported that most institutions were doing a good job.

However, this will soon be rectified as HMIs are now re-inspecting with what appear to be clear instructions to define more teacher-training institutions as inefficient in this respect, as a prelude to the national curriculum for teacher training.

Sadly the alternative, more realistic analysis is seldom noticed. The virtues of grant-aided schools, city technology colleges, technology schools and public schools are regularly endorsed, overtly or covertly, by politicians of all parties. Parents seek these schools enthusiastically, often moving jobs and homes to access them. Yet the teachers who teach and run these schools are almost exclusively the product of the very teacher-training institutions the politicians despise.

Ever since the early 1970s, almost all the teachers appointed by these sought-after schools have completed their training in a teacher-training institution. By any calculation this must mean that well over half their teachers have had the kind of training that many of our politicians now define as inadequate. And the same is equally true for every other school that HMI and OFSTED can identify as good or outstanding. Perhaps at least some, even much, of the fault - if it is fault - lies elsewhere.

Maybe this is why attempts to improve teacher training have had little effect. It is simply the wrong target. Certainly there is astonishingly little evidence that students have benefited by the obligatory 33 to 66 per cent initial training time that is spent in schools rather than the institutions, despite the massive funding that the institutions now have to divert to the schools for this.

Stories are accumulating of teachers' indifference to their students and students' boredom with the mundane tips that some teachers offer their students under the guise of professional understanding. The diminution in subject knowledge due to strained teacher-training institution timetables is already causing concern. And the effective way in which many teacher-training institutions have encouraged their students to challenge prevailing staffroom assumptions on race, gender, class and handicap in some schools is being diminished by extensive exposure to the folk wisdom of the staffroom.

Equally, unfortunately, there is as, as yet, little evidence of the enhancement of quality sought by the Teacher Training Agency. So far comparative costs analyses, increased emphases on inspection and a plethora of working groups and committees have led to little visible change, despite further massive expenditure.

The enhanced funding available to the schools and the Teacher Training Agency is, of course, funding unavailable to the institutions. Reduced staffing ratios, the longer working hours demanded of teacher-training institutions' staff compared with other departments in the universities, the intense pressure on research and publication -all these, alongside the political pressures, are demoralising staff.

Significantly enhanced funding could help to start the upturn and begin to rescue yet another so-far-missed political promise to "enhance the supply of good teachers". And confident teacher training institutions are surely going to be needed to cope with the shortfall in teacher supply caused by the government-induced teacher flight into early retirement.

But a more radical initiative would be to initiate a training levy on schools that are outside the regular state system, but yet enjoy a regular supply of highly acceptable new teachers from it free of charge. Such a levy might alert these independent schools to the real costs of their enterprise, establish them as real stakeholders in training and provide an influx of cash where it is so sorely needed. Industry is familiar with training levies and accepts them as a normal and appropriate cost of enterprise. Applied to teacher training, they could change the world more dramatically than the TTA, school-based training or political sniping from any quarter.

John Eggleston is emeritus professor of education at the University of Warwick

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