Education Viewpoint: Schools can't teach teachers

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John Major's strongly expressed aim to restore the status of teachers is supported by all. Teachers' morale is low, their pay lower than it should be; both need raising. But John Patten's proposal to overhaul initial teacher education under a free- standing Teacher Training Agency (TTA), as set out in Part I of the Education Bill now going through Parliament, will have the opposite effect.

This new quango is as objectionable and unnecessary as it will prove to be impracticable. Mr Patten has, to meet the severe criticisms of the House of Lords, wisely amended Part II of his Bill, which deals with student unions. He should now be as wise in amending the proposals in Part I for teacher training.

Teacher education can certainly be improved, but not by the system the Government proposes. Teachers now either graduate in education or, after completing other degrees, gain a Postgraduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) in a teacher education college or university education department. By placements in schools they gain practical experience, and in college they gain subject and legal knowledge and an awareness of the latest research findings. All this gives them an intellectual background to their profession and enables them to adapt to a changing world.

The Government (and many others) believe teachers should spend more time in schools, but the present proposals involve shifting teacher education out of universities and transferring it to schools, which would run their own courses. This system would be funded and administered by the TTA. With no new money, it would simply take away from existing funds for teaching and research. The thrust of the Bill is thus to downgrade the teacher trainees of the future. They would be taught instead by the traditional method of 'sitting with Nellie'. This may once have been appropriate, but today teaching is a complex profession, and its practitioners need to be broadly educated, aware of related disciplines and of the latest research. They need to experience a wide range of schools, not just one. These things they can get under the existing system; but not if the Bill becomes law.

The primary purpose of schools is to teach children, not teachers. How will they find the time and facilities to train teachers? They are already overburdened with all the practices imposed on them in recent years. And what of the children? Is it right that they be taught by apprentices instead of qualified professionals?

Moreover, if the proposed TTA is thought so essential by the Government, why is it designed to govern teacher training only in England? In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the present system would continue as is, funded by the Higher Education Funding Councils and the Northern Ireland Department for Education. Furthermore, being directly funded by the Government, it would, despite the Bill's safeguards, be vulnerable to government influence and interference.

The teaching profession needs to benefit from fundamental research in education, and the minister responsible needs to hear impartial advice based on that research. This Bill would place the funding of research in the hands of the TTA quango. There it could easily become no more than a mechanism for finding convenient academic fig-leaves to cover the nakedness of current political prejudices. These proposals have the potential to undermine the integrity of the university system.

Teaching will not be improved by the removal of its graduate status, by stifling research, or by foisting responsibility for training on schools. It is not surprising that schools do not want it. Much is made of the fact that some independent schools train teachers. But they are only a few, nowhere near enough for the running of a national education system needed for the education of some 60,000 teachers every year. Besides, as we have seen recently at Harrow, the workload involved in educating trainee teachers has proved excessive and the school has reluctantly felt bound to withdraw.

We need to build on existing successful partnerships between universities and schools - schemes such as those at the universities of Manchester, Sussex, Bristol, Greenwich, and elsewhere. We need more school- based training - but not so much as to threaten the quality of children's education. We need to cut bureaucracy, not extend it. We need a system that will work. England already has a Higher Education Funding Council. This could establish its own committee on teacher training. As in Wales and Scotland, this could, and should, do all that is being suggested for the TTA.

The author is Master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.