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The Independent Online
One of the irksome features of education recently has been the creation of the "agency" and its equivalent. I always thought that agencies were best left dealing with such matters as supplying temporary staff, obtaining theatre tickets - arranging dates, even but nowadays they deal with sensitive matters of public policy.

One dictionary definition of the word "agency" suggests: "A person or thing through which power is exerted and an end obtained". The lexicographer concerned had clearly never worked in a university or had to deal with the Teacher Training Agency (TTA). Power is exerted all right, but the end, sadly, is not obtained.

Since its creation, relationships between the TTA and universities and colleges, on both initial and post-experience training, have been strained. Most would cheerfully return to getting their cash from the Higher Education Funding Council, given the chance. Teacher education should never have been detached from the mainstream of university funding.

The latest fiasco in a long line of bog-ups is over the granting of in- service funds. The Open University alone, despite its magnificent record of professional development work for teachers, has lost nearly pounds 1.5m. Many other universities have received nothing. The effect on their initial training programmes, which are often run by the very same people who teach the advanced courses and master's degrees that many teachers seek, will be devastating. Remove these people's jobs, and some of the vital courses needed to provide the next generation of teachers will collapse.

Now here's an irony. The Teacher Training Agency is supposed to be responsible for recruiting teachers as well, though it has hardly excelled at it, since we currently face a crisis in teacher recruitment. So the body charged with ending a serious shortage of teachers is the very outfit that has just undermined several providers of recruits. It is as if the farmer had set fire to the cornfield.

Could the explanation be that the providers of master's degrees and numerous other high-grade professional qualifications have become lazy and complacent, or that their courses are no longer sought? Quite the reverse. Many are popular with teachers; thousands of school heads and deputies have taken them.

It is no use expecting any cogent explanations from the TTA itself. Universities are now well used to the battling statements that emerge from its maw. "Every single institution selected", says one spokesperson, "has a strong research base." Yet the research assessment grades of many universities turned down, like the Open University, are higher than those of institutions that have been given money. Surely some mistake.

The TTA takes a narrow approach to teacher education, with far too much emphasis on crude performance objectives. This is a passing fashion, and thank goodness many universities are able to offer courses that reach beyond the philistine.

But universities should not offer only highly theoretical courses to seasoned practitioners. It is perfectly possible to combine academic rigour in fields such as management, curriculum and assessment, or special educational needs, with the demands of a practical job.

When I directed the Leverhulme Primary Improvement Project, one of the most effective schools we studied had a headteacher who had completed her MEd at the local university and undertaken an action programme to improve the teaching of reading as her research project and dissertation. The teachers in the school became highly committed, and some signed up with the same university as a result.

The only way of dealing with the current TTA mayhem is what in other circumstances I once called "the Dick Turpin solution".

A few years ago, politicians became disaffected with the body which at that time was called the Schools Council. It had overall responsibility for curriculum and assessment in schools.

Ministers did not like the School Council, so they foolishly split it in two: "curriculum" was sent up to York, "assessment" stayed in London. Soon they realised what nonsense it had been to separate the two functions, so they brought "curriculum" back to London and put it in the very same building which it had vacated not long before. The journey from London to York, like that of Dick Turpin, was soon over, and had cost a lot of money.

It would be cheap at the price, however, if the Teacher Training Agency were now quietly laid to rest and its university functions returned to the Higher Education Funding Council where they belong. Even dating agencies close if they fail to supply happy partners. I would gladly volunteer to be Black Bess, and carry all their files to Bristol.

The writer is professor of education at Exeter University