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When there are too few mentors in the pot

New inspection proposals could suffer from a shortage of expertise, writes Norman Lucas

Earlier this year, the Office for Standards in Education launched its consultation document, Framework for the inspection of the initial training of further education teachers. While there is much to recommend in the document, there are a number of important and unresolved issues.

At the heart of the framework is Ofsted's insistence that subjectvocational-specific training is given within initial teacher education (ITE) courses.

At first glance such a suggestion seems perfectly reasonable - help in practical teaching within a subject is clearly important. However, there are some practical difficulties. In FE there has traditionally been a belief that subject knowledge alone is sufficient to teach.

A culture has developed in some subject and vocational areas where narrow ways of teaching have become entrenched.

The Ofsted framework suggests a balance between subject-specific and general training, but it is worth re-emphasising the value of trainee teachers being introduced to wider professional issues. Learning can take place in many different ways, instead of being ghettoised into narrow, subject-based notions of teaching.

Secondly, the FE curriculum is far more diverse than that of any other education sector. Catering for this diversity in teacher training, while desirable, is far from straightforward. Higher education does not have the expertise to cover the FE curriculum.

The answer seems to be to develop a robust mentoring scheme in the workplace, reflecting subject areas. But how? HE has no control over FE, and FE does not have the resources to provide mentoring. In some areas, subject knowledge resides in a teacher who could be seeking training themselves.

In some other subject areas, existing expertise is so weak that finding good mentors will be problematic. What happens if Ofsted found the HE side good but subject support in colleges poor? What does an HE provider do? How can HE insist on quality subject-specific mentor support in colleges?

In most cases neither the professional culture nor resources are available for systematic, quality subject-specific mentoring in FE. Could an unintended consequence of the framework be that HE will avoid certain subject areas if quality mentoring is a problem?

Smaller HE providers may withdraw as they take a wide range of trainees, including those from industry, to make groups viable. The inspection framework also states that it makes judgments against national standards.

Fair enough, but these national standards seem to be the Further Education National Training Organisation's national standards.

Is Ofsted saying that inspections will be carried out against standards their own report has deemed inappropriate? Are these the revised standards under the auspices of the yet-to-be-formed lifelong learning skills council? If so, no one has seen them yet.

Or are there another set of standards? Perhaps those of the Teacher Training Agency? No one has a problem about being inspected against standards, but it is nice to know which ones.

The last few years have seen a number of good initiatives concerning FE teacher education-but no real strategic thinking. Let me give a couple of examples. While Fento and the Department for education and Skills are talking about initial teacher education across the learning and skills sector (which is itself problematic), Ofsted will only be inspecting HE-awarded qualifications.

Who is going to inspect all the FE teacher education courses provided by colleges without partnership with HE such as City amp; Guilds and Cambridge and many other qualifications? Does it not make sense to inspect all ITE qualifications by the same body and within the same framework?

If Ofsted is going to inspect HE ITE courses against national standards why do we need a Sector Skills Council? Fento is struggling to find a continuing existence in the lifelong learning SSC, and the DfES is still in the process of compiling its response to the consultation on the future shape of FE teacher training.

Within the DfES response issues to be decided are the question of introducing qualified teacher status, mentoring in colleges and entitlements for newly-qualified teachers.

There is also the important issue of resources to pay for these entitlements. Would it not be sensible to see what the DfES comes up with before we agree an inspection framework?

Progress is being made on the issue of FE teacher education. But the DfES is doing one thing, Fento another and, in the meantime, Ofsted launch a new framework for inspection.

It's all very well for these bodies to focus on their brief, but from where providers of FE teacher education stand it is beginning to look like a dog's dinner.

Norman Lucas is director of Post-compulsory Teacher Education and the Institute of Education, University of London

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