For too long, in my view, teacher training courses have lacked a clear focus. This has arisen, in part, because they are necessarily a mixture of several components: ensuring that students know their subjects, showing them how to organise those subjects for schools, training in the methods of teaching and exploring the role of education in society.
Of these, the latter is generally considered by staff to be the most enjoyable, and most like the work of other university departments. All the rest are problematic. For post-graduate certificate in education courses, good subject understanding depends on attracting the right students, and we know how difficult that is proving. For BEd primary courses there is the dilemma of whether all the subjects of the national curriculum can be taught up to degree standard, and if not, what to do about it. Many education departments are too poorly equipped to give proper experience in organising subjects for schools.
Because no one method of teaching works best with all pupils in all schools, educationists sometimes go to the other extreme and contend that teaching is a matter of personal preference, and instruction in how to do it is inappropriate. That is plainly wrong. Some methods work better than others, phonics rather than "real books" for example, and there should be training and practice in those.
The net result has been that education departments have leaned heavily towards academic study. In effect, they became sub-departments of sociology, psychology and philosophy, staffed by academics, who often, given the chance, would have preferred to be in the subject departments themselves, and ex-teachers copying from them how to be academics.
The defence sometimes offered was that subjects like sociology, psychology and philosophy are necessary for a theory of teaching. But, as Paul Hirst remarked when he was professor of education at Cambridge, teaching is a practical activity, a bit like designing an aircraft. In essence, it depends on shaping up what works and the subjects help to make sense of it later.
Teacher training has improved in recent years. The Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education helped to make it more school-focused. The schools' national curriculum implies what teachers should be trained in. The stronger partnerships with schools have led to training that is more practical and classroom-based. The Office for Standards in Education is there to keep everyone up to the mark.
But still the thorny question of to what extent it is appropriate to instruct trainee teachers in how to teach has not been fully addressed. The existing requirements merely state that students "should be introduced to a range of teaching methods". Why not specify? Gillian Shephard quite reasonably asks: if medical schools can teach how to operate, why can't teacher-training departments teach how to teach?
Teaching is as much art as science, it is complex, and there are few, if any, routines or recipes which achieve success on all or most occasions.
But this does not justify professors of education leaping to their feet and claiming, in effect, that it is all so complicated nothing can be done. Neither do attempts to specify the training requirements justify the universities' fears that there is a fundamental threat to their autonomy.
The content and approach of a whole range of professional courses in universities, like those in engineering and medicine, are arrived at through agreement with the relevant professional institution. Why should the government's attempt to specify teacher training courses be any different?
Perhaps because it is the Government. Teaching, unlike the other professions, is without its own professional body. There have been attempts over the years to establish a General Teaching Council but they have been blocked by Department for Education and Employment officials who have seen it as getting in the way of ministers' and their control of the profession. Latterly, they have preferred to work through a funding quango, the Teacher Training Agency.
It seems perfectly reasonable to require teachers to be trained in the best teaching methods available. But many people, myself included, are made uneasy by the thought of the Government or its quango telling the universities what to do.
We do, however, have the examples of engineering and medicine to help us. Would we not be going down a well-trodden path if the Government, instead of making provocative noises about a teacher-training national curriculum, were to pave the way for a General Teaching Council to take responsibility for, among other things, the recognition of courses? The council could then work out the training requirements with the providers in a non-threatening way, and prominent among them would be teaching how to teach.
Anthea Millett, chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency, was quoted in The TES last week saying "until we can convince the profession that it is a profession, with appropriate professional qualifications, we shan't attract the quality of people we want".
Right message, wrong body. Not only would a General Teaching Council confirm teaching as a profession, it could sharpen the focus of training courses. If this does not appeal to the present government, what about the next?
Alan Smithers is professor of policy research and director of the centre for education and employment research at Brunel University