HIGHER EDUCATION : Chalking up a better image

The new training agency looks more teacher-friendly than some supporters had hoped, writes Judith Judd
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The Independent Online
Few Government quangos have attracted more op-probrium before their launch than the Teacher Training Agency, which next week will reveal its plans for the future.

Universities say the agency, which promotes teaching and dispenses funds to teacher training, is unnecessary and that funds should continue to be channelled through them. They believe the agency will downgrade teacher training, increase bureaucracy and be vulnerable to government influence.

Sir Geoffrey Holland, then permanent secretary at the Department for Education, is also believed to have told John Patten, the former secretary of state for education, to drop the agency. But the organisation is a talisman for the right, which has long believed that teacher-training departments are hot-beds of progressive ideas. College lecturers, their argument goes, are foisting these on their students who are, in their turn, wrecking schools by their failure to attend to the three Rs. The agency, therefore, would help to wrest teacher training from the influence of university left-wingers.

It may not, however, fulfil the role that some of its promoters intended. Far from seeing teachers and teacher trainers as the enemy, the agency's new chief executive, Anthea Millett, believes it is her job to advance the status of teachers and promote teaching. Nor does she believe schools are full of new teachers whose heads have been crammed with progressive ideas.

"Research shows that new teachers revert to teaching how they themselves were taught rather than how they were taught in their training," she says.

"I don't recognise the notion of all these trendy teachers. Teachers are a conservative bunch of people. Year on year they carry forward the best of which they are capable of doing for young people."

Besides, she argues, it would be difficult for teachers' trainers to promote a particular philosophy now that the criteria of governing training courses are so strict.

She believes the issue is not whether teachers are trendy or otherwise but the fact that some teachers do not have enough specialist knowledge to teach their subjects. This year's report from Her Majesty's Chief Inspector said standards for seven-to-11-year-olds were causing most concern and suggested that many teachers did not know enough to teach effectively.

The solution, Ms Millett says, lies in more in-service training. She is interested in the idea of a national scheme for all teachers, similar to the one that has already been introduced for heads.

Her plans to improve the image of teachers are also ambitious. The idea of a new "chief contractor" charged with brushing up teachers' image caused some amusement when it was first revealed. Ms Millett prefers to call the post "programme co-ordinator". He or she will have an advisory committee on recruitment responsible for promoting teaching in schools, universities and industry. There will also be a hotline on which prospective teachers will be able to talk to someone with teaching experience about joining the profession.

It may seem odd to be worrying about teacher recruitment at a time when a quarter of all newly-qualified teachers cannot find jobs but there are two reasons for doing so. The first is that, as the recession eases, graduates are likely to find other jobs more attractive than teaching. The second is to remedy shortages in particular subjects, such as maths and science, where recruitment difficulties are endemic. Ms Millett is anxious to widen the pool for recruitment to include more people from business and industry. The agency is taking over the former licensed teacher scheme designed to attract graduates with work experience into teaching. The scheme, under which schools could take on licensed teachers through local authorities, failed to attract the expected number of students. Now schools will be able to negotiate directly with the agency if they wish to take on a licensed teacher.

The agency's determination to give teaching a new image does not mean that its relationship with teacher training departments will necessarily be cosy. From this year, allocations of teacher training places have for the first time been based partly on quality. The 800 extra secondary places available have been alloted to those institutions that have received the best inspection reports from the Office for Standards in Education. The agency is organising a funding study which it hopes will lead to the best departments getting the most students. "We aim to encourage high quality producers," says Ms Millett. The arrangement will bring teacher training into line with the rest of higher education, where money is distributed partly according to the quality of research and teaching.

In this respect, the agency's philosophy coincides with the watchwords of quality and accountability which the Government has pursued for a decade. In others, it reflects the new conciliatory tone that Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, has adopted towards the teaching profession.