Open Eye: A tale of two programmes

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The Independent Online
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Charles Dickens' opening line in A Tale of Two Cities captures the challenge of leading the Open University. Any large community inevitably generates both good and bad news but recent coincidences in the timing have been remarkable. Three times good news about one programme and bad about another came the same day.

In mid-September the team sent by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to assess the OU's teaching in General Engineering told us they were awarding the University the maximum score of 24/24. Wonderful news! Our first 24/24 was for Sociology and under the previous (non-numerical) assessment scheme the OU scored "excellents" in Business/Management, Chemistry, Geology, Music and Social Policy/Administration. It is particularly satisfying to be top-rated in subjects like Engineering which are tough to teach well at a distance.

Unfortunately, that same day our School of Education brought me the bad news that our Post-Graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) programme for training primary teachers could not keep pace with changing government regulations.

The OU's PGCE was launched in 1994 at the request of government in order to provide a part-time training route for people - particularly graduates in shortage subjects like science - who want to make a career change into teaching from other work. It became the country's largest PGCE and proved so successful that it won the 1996 Queen's Anniversary prize and high praise from the Parliamentary Select Committee on Education in 1997, not least for attracting numbers of graduates from ethnic minorities.

However, times change and after considerable soul searching we opted not to offer the primary PGCE programme in 1999 so as to concentrate on developing a completely new PGCE Mark II to match the changed regulations. Announcing that decision was a bad news day for hundreds who had applied to take the programme in 1999. Most accepted, however, that the OU must ensure its programmes fully fit government regulations.

Ironically, that day also brought the news that in the national Teaching Quality Assessment of General Engineering several very prestigious universities had failed to match the OU's 24/24 score.

More recently still the same post delivered the draft quality assessment report for General Engineering and an Ofsted report on the primary PGCE. The differences in methodology, style and purpose between the two documents are striking! HEFCE awards up to four points on each of six dimensions: Curriculum design, content and organisation; Teaching, learning and assessment; Student progression and achievement; Student support and guidance; Learning resources; and Quality assurance and enhancement.

As well as analysing the extensive documentation provided by the OU, assessors attended 33 tutorial and three laboratory sessions, sampled assessment and examination scripts and tried out technology-based teaching materials. The process took several months and was conducted in a thoroughly constructive way with the aim of helping the University make its teaching even better.

In stark contrast is the Ofsted approach. To assess the 265 students taking the course for reading skills Ofsted asked the OU to identify a sample of seven students biased toward the weakest trainees in the cohort. A similar sample was requested for assessing number skills. Half the students in these samples were subsequently assessed by the OU not to have passed their PGCE.

Meanwhile, Ofsted having reported that a "significant minority" of its tiny borderline samples were unlikely to comply with the standards, the Daily Telegraph was misled into announcing that "half the 265 graduate trainees... did not deserve to qualify as primary school teachers".

For Ofsted to encourage such grotesque distortion of its findings is a grave disservice to the many excellent graduates of the programme. It results from Ofsted's shoddy methodology, ambiguous report writing and the pressing need to fulfil its vindictive name-and-shame publicity policy.

This policy is in stark contrast to the attitude of government ministers, who have been unfailingly encouraging and constructive about the OU's teacher training and appear to take seriously the Prime Minister's statement that "we must manage change together".

The dissonance between Ofsted and ministers creates confusion. Is Ofsted trying to drive universities out of teacher training so that its inspectors can bid for the task? This would make inspections much cosier but could universities be told if that is the plan? The OU is now investing millions in a new PGCE programme. It is determined both to increase the diversity of the teaching force and to train its new members to the highest standards.