Leading Article: Mr Patten retreats on Mums' Army

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THE PACKAGE of teacher-training reforms that John Patten announced yesterday is full of good things. Those who are learning to teach will spend more time in schools and less in teacher-training colleges; and they will spend more time learning practicalities and the subjects in which they intend to specialise than in learning theories of education. Training courses will no longer be set almost entirely by distant bureaucrats; teachers themselves will be able to contribute ideas about how their successors should be trained. As for the children, newly trained teachers will devote more energy to drumming into them the basics of reading and arithmetic.

Important though these plans are, it is Mr Patten's retreat from plans for a 'Mums' Army' that catches the eye. The Education Secretary had originally talked of drafting into schools a corps of bright non-graduates, who knew their subjects well but had only minimal specialist teacher training - and in doing so, he infuriated teachers' unions, which saw the idea as an attack on the years their members had spent training.

In his defence, Mr Patten could point out that independent schools that had been flexible about the specialist qualifications teachers brought to the job did not seem to do conspicuously worse than schools in the more rigid (and more unionised) state sector. This may have something to do with the fact that many teacher-training courses are able to attract only the candidates that other disciplines do not want.

The issue, however, was whether these bright non-specialists should be allowed to call themselves full-fledged teachers, rather than merely serving as assistants in primary schools. If so, thousands of teachers would be made to feel that they had wasted years of their lives in unnecessary training.

That alone is not an argument against the idea. But since his first pronouncement on the matter in June, Mr Patten seems to have realised that bypassing teacher training altogether would be a dangerous step. Teachers' colleges have indeed many faults; but they also have many strengths, and to let the Mums' Army loose in schools unsupervised would be to forsake those strengths.

Hence Mr Patten's decision to designate the Mums' Army as assistants, and to treat the year they will spend acquiring teaching skills as a step towards a full teacher qualification. As a result, there will be no bifurcated teaching profession. And if the rest of the package does its job in improving teaching quality, there should be no need for one.