David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, yesterday asked his exam advisers to draw up the numeracy tests, which will include mental arithmetic.
Students already need to have GCSE maths and English to at least grade C before they are accepted for training. But ministers believe that too many new teachers are leaving training courses with an inadequate grasp of figures, spelling and grammar and unable to use a computer effectively.
Their proposals are part of a scheme to tighten teacher training outlined in the Green Paper on the profession's future published before Christmas.
Primary and secondary school trainee teachers will have to pass the tests, which will be set and marked nationally, before they can start teaching. The tests might be taken before, during or after training. Tests in numeracy will be piloted this summer.
John Howson, an education consultant and visiting fellow at Oxford Brookes University, said: "There are concerns about the standard of people coming into teacher training courses and whether GCSE standards are adequate. Older entrants may have taken GCSE some years earlier."
But he questioned the effect the new tests would have on recruitment at a time when applicants for courses are falling sharply. "I would hope that the Department for Education has researched the effect of this on recruitment."
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), which is to help devise the tests, surveyed teachers two years ago to discover how confident they were about teaching grammar and spelling. Teachers complained that they were being asked to take "grammar tests" and the National Association for the Teaching of English advised them not to take part.
The survey asked teachers whether they felt certain that they could distinguish simple, compound and co-ordinated sentences and explain the origin of words such as "chortle" and "dosh". Most teachers confessed that they could not.
A spokesman for the Curriculum Authority said: "Decisions about the content of the tests will need to be related to the national curriculum for teacher training and the national curriculum to ensure that teachers are in command of the areas and topics which they teach."
Professor David Reynolds, of Newcastle University, who led the Government's numeracy task force on how maths should be taught in primary schools, said it was important for teachers to be in command of the basic skills they taught, particularly in view of the changes to maths teaching proposed by the task force.
"I think that in the long term, the solution to problems in these areas will lie in ensuring there is a baccalaureate system so that teachers don't give up in these areas between the ages of 16 and 18, as they often do in this country."
London University's Institute of Education introduced tests for its trainee teachers in English, maths, science and IT last year. Barbara McGilchrist, the institute's dean of initial teacher training, accepted that the new national tests "raised the stakes" for new teachers.
"I am very supportive of the idea. Our tests mean that new teachers have to be up to A-level standard in English and Maths even if they are going to teach in primary schools."
She said the institute's tests had shown that some students were 100 per cent competent in the core subjects while others needed remedial tuition.
One academic, who did not wish to be named, questioned whether the tests were necessary for people teaching music, art and English in secondary schools. "There will always be people teaching English literature at A- level for whom a numeracy test is irrelevant."
Mr Blunkett said yesterday in his letter to the Teacher Training Agency, the quango in charge of training and recruitment: "I am determined to take action as soon as possible to further strengthen standards and extend flexibility following the introduction of a basic curriculum and the strengthening of in-service training."
He said one of the agency's first tasks would be to develop numeracy tests with the QCA.
Education sectionReuse content