Tomorrow's Teachers Know All about 'Life Skills' or 'Learning Strategies' but Can They Teach Reading? Some Aren't So Sure; What's Wrong with Our Schools?

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`SUPPOSING we trained our doctors as we train our teachers,' declared Dr Eric Anderson, formerly a highly successful headmaster of Eton and now Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford. `Most of us would be dead.'

The whole culture and philosophy of our teacher training institutions, he went on, was based on the failed and discredited ideas of the Sixties. Most were so dominated by people with Left-wing views that anyone who thought differently was bound to be an outsider. And their courses were packed with useless information and out-of-date techniques based on theory rather than practice.

`It would be worth asking,' said Anderson, `how many really excellent teachers decide to spend the second half of their working lives in training colleges. The answer, I suspect, is very few indeed. Well, do we really want to put the shock-troops of the next teaching generation into the hands of people who were not very good teachers themselves - and who pump out ideas and theories which experience shows don't work?'

At Eton, half the masters he had hired had been trained in such places and half hadn't. The half who hadn't had proved to be by far the better teachers.

Anderson's judgment may sound swingeing, not to say apocalyptic, but he reflects a very deep and widespread dissatisfaction with our 96 teacher training institutions. Every Tory education secretary I have spoken to bemoans the fact that they did not begin the process of reform with a root-and-branch attack on the way our teachers are trained.

Far too many, they say, emerge from colleges and universities stuffed with half-baked, politically correct and utterly impractical theories, but very little notion of how to teach the basics of reading, writing and number.

Nor is it only the Tories who are exasperated. David Blunkett, the shadow education spokesman, is singing from virtually the same song-sheet. `When I came into this job 18 months ago,' he told me, `I was amazed to discover how little time was spent during a typical teacher training course in learning how to transmit basic reading, writing and number skills. Often, it was only a few hours.'

The Daily Mail recently carried a withering attack by a young woman called Jane Dewar on the training course she had just completed at a Midlands university. She said, among other things, that she and the other students had been given virtually no advice on practical issues, such as how to keep good discipline in class.

`I felt she got the situation quite right,' volunteered Blunkett without my ever mentioning the article. `It's perfectly clear that, in future, we're going to have to lay down very strict guidelines for the inspection of teacher training colleges.

`These people need to realise that the notion of teachers as, first and foremost, an emotional prop and social worker is no longer acceptable. They are, first and foremost, conveyors of knowledge. If the people in these colleges are not doing their jobs, they have to go. Nobody is forcing them to work there.'

The same growls of complaint are to be heard the length of Whitehall and in all its agencies. Senior civil servants reel off lists of universities and colleges where, they say, the training is downright second-rate. The new Teacher Training Agency berates Ofsted inspectors for reports on colleges which, in its view, are nothing like tough enough.

Nor is that surprising, given that at least a third of Chris Woodhead's inspectors are unreconstructed refugees from the soggy-minded past.

The entire Whitehall machine, in fact, is thoroughly fed up with the hostility and foot-dragging with which the heads of many teacher training institutions have greeted their attempts at reform. They opposed the setting up of the TTA and bitterly resent the fact that, in future, they will get government finance only if their courses are judged to be up to scratch - and if the students they turn out perform well in schools. …