People training to become teachers will have to pass tougher skills tests in numeracy and literacy before they can be recommended for the award of qualified teacher status (QTS), the Department for Education (DfE) has announced. This will be the first major change in the tests since the Labour government tightened them up in 2000 amid concerns over slipping standards.

Applicants to ITT courses that start after 1 July 2013 will have to pass the skills tests before starting their course. At the moment teachers can take the tests later but still take part in the course. Anyone who fails the tests three times won’t be allowed to take them again for two years.

The new numeracy and literacy skills tests will cover the core skills that teachers need to do their job rather than the subject knowledge needed for teaching. This is to ensure all teachers are competent in numeracy and literacy, regardless of their specialism, the DfE said.

The tests do not replace the GCSE grade C equivalence entry requirement, they are set in the context of the professional role of a teacher, all questions use real data and information which teachers are likely to encounter, and they are computerised and can be taken at around 150 test centres throughout the UK.

The Education Secretary Michael Gove said: “These changes will mean that parents can be confident that we have the best teachers coming into our classrooms. Above all, it will help ensure we raise standards in our schools and close the attainment gap between the rich and poor.”

The Teaching Agency is running the new tests and its chief executive Charlie Taylor said the move was what parents expect and children deserve.

“We want teaching to be a real choice for top graduates and by raising the bar on entry, we will further raise the status of the profession,” he added.

But the teaching unions disagreed, with Julia Neal, president of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, saying: “I do think that sometimes there’s a message going out which is really just undermining the profession. Are we saying that teachers at the moment aren’t good enough because they haven’t passed these tests? I do worry about the message that’s going out about the profession.”

And Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said it was surprising that Gove was showing such interest in the entry requirements for teacher training courses and yet was also advocating that schools should be free to employ unqualified teachers.

“The real issue is the training and support that teachers are given once they have entered into teaching training,” she said.

The shadow schools minister Kevin Brennan said that Labour supported efforts to raise the quality and status of teachers but reckoned that other measures were needed. The sector needed more “high flying applicants”, he said, and Labour’s proposed ‘new deal for teachers’ would expand schemes like Teach First, improve training and on the job development and incentivise bright graduates to teach in less well-off communities.

But, he added: “The government continues to insult teachers and damage morale with its extreme policies and out of touch rhetoric. Michael Gove called teachers ‘whingers’ and 10,000 teachers have left the profession. That is putting school standards at risk.”

Earlier this year, the Ofsted head Sir Michael Wilshaw criticised teachers for complaining too much about stress levels and making excuses for their poor performance. He said: “Let me tell you what stress is. Stress is what my father felt, who struggled to find a job in the 1950s and 1960s and who often had to work long hours in three different jobs and at weekends to support a growing family.”