Tit-for-tat action will lead nowhere

7th February 1997 at 00:00
NAHT proposal to boycott initial teaching training is self-destructive, says Tony Merritt. Action taken by the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) may lead to the collapse of initial teacher training (ITT). In protest at Government changes to the teachers' superannuation scheme, which may substantially reduce teachers' early retirement opportunities, the NAHT has advised its members to refuse to co-operate in any teacher-training arrangements from September 1.

Initial training has been targeted because the NAHT alleges that Department for Education and Employment "consultation" on the changes to early retirement is a sham. In advance of completion of consultation, the Government had already reduced next year's target intakes for ITT, since it expects fewer new teachers to be needed as a consequence of the new restrictions.

Essentially, it is "tit for tat". Since the Government is using ITT recruitment to force through its changes, the NAHT will target initial training in a campaign of non-co-operation to seek a withdrawal of current proposals. Local branch meetings of the NAHT currently being held have provided overwhelming support for the national policy directive.

It could hardly have happened at a worse time for those schools and institutions which have been striving to implement government-imposed reforms to the system of teacher training. Recent Government legislation requires that students should spend more time in schools and that "school-based training" should replace "teaching practice". Teachers in schools are expected to undertake a significant training role and to share responsibility for assessment of students' competence. Training institutions have had to reduce their staffing to devolve funding to schools and, although schools are not compelled to participate in arrangements for ITT, training institutions have to negotiate "contracts" with schools to secure the placements needed for their students.

Ever since these reforms were introduced (in DFEE circulars 992 and 1493), colleges and university departments of education have worked hard to secure the co-operation of schools in the new teacher-training arrangement. Some institutions have had some difficulty in doing so and have found it necessary to operate a "mixed economy" of student placements - some students participating in School-Based Training, others perhaps following a more traditional arrangement with supervision and assessment of work in schools still undertaken by college tutors. Certainly, the evolution of the system as a whole was at a critical stage before the NAHT was provoked into taking its action.

With an eye to the impending election, schools have been reminded that participation in ITT partnerships is voluntary and no teacher may be required to carry out ITT duties under their contract of employment as a school teacher. Teachers' workloads, the NAHT argue, must be kept to a reasonable level given the effective removal of prospects for early retirement.

The dispute over changes to the pension scheme may, of course, be resolved. However, once the genie of non-participation in ITT arrangements has escaped from the bottle it will prove very difficult to cork it back into place. The NAHT action will already have caused a lot of stock-taking on the part of potential recruits to the teaching profession and those who advise them. Since "qualified teacher status" can only be obtained by students successfully completing school experience in each year of their training: * will any self-respecting careers teachercareers advisor provide advice or encouragement to students to embark on a course which will be unable to provide the school experience needed to obtain qualified teacher status?

* will parents of prospective students (who are increasingly having to fund students through their courses as the level of student grants continues to shrink and higher education institutions propose introducing course fees) be willing to support their offsprings' applications to teacher-training courses which may thus prove to be non-viable?

* how will headteachers resolve the paradox of providing references for all applicants to teacher-training courses which their proposed action will render non-viable?

* will colleges and universities be able to continue to process applications from potential new entrants to teacher training in the knowledge that schools may not provide placements even for students currently enrolled - and what about those students already accepted?

These are the questions which are of immediate relevance to this year's A-level and final-year degree students, who are actively considering their career options. The danger is that if and when the dispute over pensions is resolved too much damage will have already been caused. Also, assuming that a solution is found, how will those headteachers who are encouraging or supporting their staff now in action to halt initial training in their schools be able to turn a somersault in a month or two (when training institutions will be undertaking their annual exercise of requesting schools to offer student placements for 9697) and then actively encourage their staff to continue, or commence partnership arrangements, for student placements? Certainly, if placements are not forthcoming, teacher training cannot continue.

Of course, there are right-wing ideologues who would not necessarily be too concerned to see a significant increase in the recruitment of unqualified, and hence less well-paid, teachers. The Government has been encouraging "alternative" forms of teacher training outside the higher education system, such as School-Centred Initial Training, the recently introduced Graduate Teacher scheme and the Licensed Teacher route.

All these schemes share, to a greater or lesser degree, the common ingredient that the schools train their own future staff. So, the irony of the current action by the NAHT is that, if the campaign succeeds, it will only lead to vastly increased workloads for teachers in schools, who will be forced to undertake the training now taking place in colleges. Unless, of course, teacher training ceases altogether with consequent implications for class size and children's education.

Teachers throughout the country are demoralised and bitter about the abrupt changes to their superannuation scheme, but it hardly makes sense to leave LEAs and governors no option but to employ unqualified teachers.

Given the extent to which teachers have been scapegoated for the "ills of society", it is hardly short of miraculous that there are still so many able, committed, enthusiastic, potential new entrants to the profession - although serious shortages already exist in subjects such as science, maths, RE and technology.

This can only be because there is still a true sense of vocation and idealism among many young people. The teaching profession will be sorely in need of their services in the years to come, and the ultimate irony is that if the proposed NAHT action is successful in preventing their training it will only make it much more difficult for school governors to accept teachers' applications for early retirement in any future scheme.

A collapse of teacher training would be a step-wise process. The first victims will be students currently training, who will be unable to complete their course and will therefore be denied qualified teacher status; next will be prospective entrants to teacher training, who will find that places cannot be offered to them; then schools will find that as the supply of newly qualified teachers dries up, workloads of existing staff will increase and class sizes will rise; childrenpupils in schools may be the last to suffer the consequences of the NAHT action, but they are defenceless and this will be the damage which is most irreparable.

In these litigious days there may also be a distinct possibility of some writs from students already in training as well as those who may be denied access to training for their chosen career. The NAHT should recognise that its campaign to modify the Government's proposals receives a great deal of support from higher education, since many university departments of education and college tutors are also adversely affected by proposed changes to the superannuation scheme. However, the proposal to boycott initial training is self-destructive, and the threat of its implementation should be lifted immediately in view of the lead time essential to making arrangements for next year's teacher training.

Tony Merritt head of schools' liaison at Trinity and All Saints, University of Leeds

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