Gillian Shephard will flick away criticism of her national curriculum for teacher training as easily as if it were a piece of fluff on her jacket. She can justify her decision by pointing to the recent report on the teaching of reading in three London boroughs and inspectors' damning assessments of teacher training at Charlotte Mason College and South Bank University.
However, her reliance on the Office for Standards in Education 1992 finding that 46 per cent of new teachers felt unprepared to teach the "basics" is perhaps misplaced, as another Her Majesty's Inspectorate survey conducted at roughly the same time showed that 95 per cent of headteachers were satisfied with the classroom performance of newly-qualified staff.
Criticism of teacher training was probably merited in the 1970s and early 1980s when teacher-education departments were relatively free agents and recruited too many philosophers, sociologists and historians who did not have a direct influence on classroom performance. But it was misleading for a "Government source" to claim this week that many teachers are still emerging from college with "their heads full of educational psychology, but having received little instruction on how to teach children to read, write and do sums".
The Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education curbed most of the sector's excesses some years ago and there is now much more emphasis on subject knowledge and teaching skills. All student teachers are expected to achieve the same set of competences by the end of their initial training, and the Government specifies the number of hours that they must spend on language, maths and science and the time allocated to school-based training. The proposed national curriculum may therefore not prove to be as radical as it seems. As Professor Neville Bennett of Exeter University said: "All Mrs Shephard seems to be doing is putting a little more Plasticine on the model." The threatened introduction of league tables for training institutions is hardly revolutionary either as every university department already receives a research rating and inspectors grade the quality of teaching in initial training.
A national curriculum and league tables will therefore not address the problems that colleges are actually wrestling with - the perennial lack of funding, the difficulty of filling places on maths, science and technology courses, and the reluctance of schools to take students on placements. Mrs Shephard's initiatives will not help the Teacher Training Agency to reach its near impossible target of recruiting 47 per cent more secondary trainees and 34 per cent more primary specialists between now and 2001. And they take us no nearer the equally important goal of raising the calibre of student teachers in the new universities and colleges of higher education - some are accepting students with only two A-levels at E grade.
Realistically, the quality of student teachers will only improve if there is another recession or a substantial shift in attitudes towards teaching. At present only 17 per cent of the public consider that teaching offers good career opportunities, and this figure will not increase if politicians and the chief inspector continually berate teachers and their trainers. A political initiative that raised the status and morale of the profession and reduced its stress levels would make the recruiters' job a little easier. But such policies are rare birds indeed.