Stormy days as the inspector targets trainers

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The Independent Online
All hell is breaking loose in the normally quiet world of teacher training. Education departments in universities feel under siege. They believe Chris Woodhead, the controversial chief inspector of schools, is gunning for them. Renowned schools of education such as Warwick and Durham are suddenly finding themselves marked down as poor in one or more of 14 categories. And Derby University's primary teaching training faces the axe. What is going on? Lucy Hodges reports.

Two years ago inspectors from Ofsted roamed the nation to check up on primary school teacher training. They concluded that two-thirds of what they saw was good. But the Chief Inspector, Chris Woodhead, wasn't happy with that conclusion. He ordered "a primary follow-up survey", concentrating mainly on training people to teach reading, but also looking at maths.

Consequently, all 67 institutions inspected first time round are being examined again under new criteria. And the results are very different. Durham, which did well in the initial inspection, was given the lowest grade for failing to assess trainees properly in the teaching of reading: a 4, denoting poor quality. Warwick, another heavy hitter in the teacher training world, found itself with two bottom grades - for assessment of trainees in reading and maths. Both universities had passed students whom the inspectors thought were not good enough.

Being marked down in that way means the universities have failed to comply with Education Secretary David Blunkett's criteria. The result is that courses at both institutions are being looked at again - for the third time. In theory, they could face closure, if they don't measure up. Under the rules, the Teacher Training Agency can begin to take away its seal of approval from teacher training institutions if there is evidence they are failing to comply with the statutory criteria.

That is what it is doing with Derby University (and with secondary training in history, maths and English at Greenwich). Like Warwick, Derby received two failing grades: one for the design and content of its teacher training in reading; the other for assessment of trainees in reading. It is thought the reason for the action against Derby was that it had received only a satisfactory rating in the first inspection round. The others, and Bath College of Higher Education, which also received a 4, had done very well.

Today there is a question mark over the future of primary teacher training at Derby. It has already had its student numbers slashed by half. It has been instructed to draw up an action plan and will be inspected again this year. If it fails to come up to snuff, it will have accreditation withdrawn. No one at Derby will speak to the press because they say they are not allowed to. Mrs Kate Roper, head of marketing, said it was "not appropriate" to comment.

Mary Russell, secretary of the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers, says: "It's a pretty draconian system and gives no real leeway to institutions. If they really are falling down on what they're supposed to be doing, then they have to be brought up short, but they need some breathing space in which to respond to the criticisms, see if they're genuine and see what they can do to rectify them. The system is "Look, measure and punish", not "Look, measure and do what you can to improve people's performance". There is this climate of fear around, and it's because the whole system is a punitive one."

No education professors from the institutions that have received poor grades would speak on the record for fear of antagonising Mr Woodhead and making things worse for their colleagues. One said: "We're living under the equivalent of an East European regime in education", and "It feels like sitting in a fort and being attacked from all sides."

One professor who would be quoted was Ted Wragg, of Exeter University and an old sparring partner of Mr Woodhead's. Professor Wragg does not need to worry too much about Ofsted because his institution has done well. He says: "Some of the best courses in the country are being threatened with closure, not because they're no good but because the inspectors disagreed with their assessments of students. In theory they can be failed if it is decided they have misassessed only one student. An inspector can walk in, watch the worst class in the school for half an hour, and say, `I didn't reckon much to that', and the whole course is threatened with closure. It's a bit like an inspector sitting in on a GP one afternoon for one consultation and saying, `wouldn't have prescribed that', and it leads to closure of the medical school."

At the heart of the row is resentment about the methodology. Although Ofsted accepts that, in theory, the misassessment of one student can lead to a grade 4, because passing a student who should have been failed is a serious matter, it rejects the notion that it has happened in practice.

David Taylor, head of Ofsted's teacher education team, says he didn't give any grade 4s to institutions that had only one student wrongly assessed. "In all cases it was at least two students below the satisfactory threshold, and we found [the universities] were not assessing other students properly either," he said. "We collect a lot of evidence on each student before deciding a student deserves to fail. It is the accumulation of evidence from talking to students, talking to mentors, reading their files and assignments, watching them teach - all of that goes into our decision."

Critics of the methodology also point out that discrepancies in assessment - with an inspector failing a student and an institution passing the same student - arise because it is often school teachers rather than university academics who are doing the assessing. The move to school-based training, with universities working closely with schools, has been pushed hard by a number of educationists, including Mr Woodhead. Money has flowed from universities to schools to fund this policy. The result is that academics have to leave much of the assessing to teachers - and it is the teachers', not the dons' judgements that are being found wanting.

Mr Taylor accepts that this is a problem, but says: "If they cannot exercise quality control then they're failing in their duties under the Act. But people have got much better at doing this as a result of recent inspections. We feel there has been real progress ... though it's not 100 per cent yet."

He also emphasises that the primary follow-up survey is a one-off, and that the methodology for inspecting teacher training is being revised. Sheena Evans, head of quality at the training agency, confirms this.

Both representatives reject criticisms that the action being taken is punitive. "We're not in any sense conducting witch hunts," says Mr Taylor. "We're not out to get providers. We believe that inspection should be a constructive exercise which results in improvement. What we're interested in is whether trainees are getting a good deal out of their training, such that they go into schools and give kids a good education."

Ms Evans explains: "The TTA board sees it as making sure that as many new recruits to the profession as possible - those coming in to be trained - are trained by the top quality providers. There has been a significant shift in the number of trainees going through those providers rather than going through poorer quality ones. We are in the business of trying to bring the standards up to match those of the best."

Such is the resentment, however, that some universities have taken legal advice. Warwick has been advised by a QC that it has a strong case for judicial review on the grounds of the irrationality of the procedures. The university was tempted to sue, but backed off. It is understood that Warwick believes it might have won a legal battle but lose the public relations war. It is now trying to invoke a grievance procedure.

Behind the clampdown lies long-standing concern that the quality of teacher training has often been ropy, and that education departments are staffed by woolly-minded progressives with sloppy attitudes from the sixties who have done a poor job training students, particularly in how to teach reading. Training experts accept that that caricature had some validity until eight or nine years ago, but say it does not apply now because teacher training is heavily controlled by the centre.

Universities are not used to being monitored in this way. They are having to accept a lot of change in a short time: the linking of quality with funding; new standards; and a new curriculum. "There are genuine and understandable concerns about the fact that this was new, that it was done without piloting," says Mr Taylor. "It would be unrealistic to expect that everyone got it right the first time.

"The universities are right to ask hard questions about our methodology and the consistency of our judgments and processes. They are right to ask us not to give grade 4s lightly. None of those grade 4s was given without an enormous amount of internal moderation, reviewing all the evidence and asking them to supply additional evidence. We knew grade 4s were for real and could have serious significance, so the last thing we wanted to do was to give a grade 4 that we were anything less than confident about."

Universities believe that Mr Woodhead has a deep animosity against teacher training establishments.

Ofsted rejects that claim. But there is no question that teacher trainers face a harsher regime than schools, because a bad Ofsted report can mean loss of funding, course closures and job losses. The stakes are therefore high. And so are the passions.