Education: Poor A-levels? Try teaching

The latest data show few recruits are well qualified - but they'll be educating our children.
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The Independent Culture
Imagine football's Premier League with a few non-League clubs scattered through it. That broadly is the picture which emerges from the Teacher Training Agency's (TTA's) second guide, published today. Vastly improved on last year, the current Initial Teacher Training Performance Profiles present streamlined comparative information on the 104 providers. In Initial Teacher Training at a Glance, the TTA even gives a series of league tables showing who does best in, for example, entry qualifications, inspection reports and employment prospects. If we amalgamate that information into one grand table, the ranking which emerges has a familiar ring to it. At the top, once more, are Oxford and Cambridge, followed by the older universities, with the newer ones bringing up the rear.

The leading former polytechnic is the University of Central England which offers specialist secondary provision in art, drama and music. But, cutting across the usual order of the universities are teacher training institutions such as Homerton College, Cambridge; Bishop Grosseteste, Lincoln, and Christchurch Canterbury.

The reason for the pre-eminence of Oxford and Cambridge is the high level of the entry qualifications for their trainees and their excellent inspection reports. Oxford achieves the top TTA quality rating in all but one of its courses. Training quality, in fact, correlates with entry qualifications across secondary teacher training - presumably as a key feature of secondary school teachers is their subject knowledge.

Where Oxford and Cambridge do less well is in the proportions of those qualifying who actually go on to enter teaching. Only about three-quarters make it to the classroom by the following March, fuelling the suspicion that some of the entrants may be going there simply to get the cachet of an Oxbridge qualification.

Both Oxford and Cambridge, like many of the older universities, offer only secondary teacher training. The best all-round performance is that of Homerton College which attracts well-qualified applicants to its undergraduate and postgraduate primary and secondary teacher training. It also receives the highest possible inspection grades for its primary courses and a very good sprinkling of top marks for its secondary courses.

Other institutions which have exceptionally good inspection reports for their primary provision are Christchurch Canterbury and Manchester Metropolitan University which has absorbed both the Didsbury, and Crewe and Alsager training centres to become the country's largest provider - its 1,292 entrants outstrips even the London Institute of Education which had 903.

Both Christchurch and Manchester Met come behind Bishop Grosseteste in the overall ranking because it has a higher level of entry qualifications and more of its final year trainees enter teaching. For the primary phase, there is no significant correlation between entry qualifications and inspection grades, probably because here it is the ability to teach literacy and numeracy that counts most.

Entry qualifications overall are disappointing and reflect the difficulty many institutions have in filling places. The undergraduate route is a particular cause for concern because A-level entry grades are the lowest for all the subject areas in higher education. In 11 institutions, less than 10 per cent entered with the equivalent of a B and two C grades, with the University of North London, and Bradford and Ilkley College joint bottom on one per cent. These institutions would, however, point to the high proportion admitted on access qualifications.

While A-level entry qualifications to undergraduate courses were well below average, postgraduate primary recruited 53 per cent good graduates compared with the 48 per cent of firsts and upper-seconds awarded. Outstanding here was Nottingham Trent which had 96 per cent of its intake so qualified. Homerton and Durham were also above three-quarters.

Not all institutions did so well - fewer than 30 per cent of the primary intake to Trinity and All Saints, South Bank University, and the University of North London had good degrees. But, generally, the postgraduate primary route has no difficulty in attracting well-qualified applicants and a further shift towards it would seem warranted.

The entry qualifications for secondary varied with each subject, reflecting partly the difficulty of recruiting to some areas. Whereas more than 60 per cent of history and English entrants held good degrees, this was true of only a third of those recruited to maths, information technology and design and technology. However, the proportion awarded good degrees varies with subject and, even in history and English, PGCE entrants did not match up in these terms. Only in PE did teacher training seem to get more than its share of good graduates.

Across the secondary teacher training institutions, there was a significant correlation between entry qualifications and achievement of qualified teacher status. This was true of subjects also. Whereas 88 per cent of history entrants qualified, that was true of only 79 per cent of those on maths courses. But, reflecting demand, only 72 per cent of those qualifying in history had actually entered teaching by the next March against 85 per cent in maths.

When the proportions qualifying and taking employment are multiplied it is striking how few of those on the final year of courses are recorded as going into teaching. On average about a third of the secondary trainees and over a quarter of primary trainees seem not to be in teaching. Only about half the final-year secondary at Kingston University, Bradford and Ilkley College, and Leeds Metropolitan University appear to have made it, as have only about half the primary trainees at Leeds Metropolitan University, South Bank University and the University of North London. At the other end of the scale, over 90 per cent of primary trainees from the colleges of St Mary's, Bishop Grosseteste, Ripon and York, and Newman took up teaching, as did over 80 per cent of secondary trainees from the universities of Liverpool, Bristol and Central England and Liverpool Hope University College.

Such training institutions are not the only way into teaching. The Government has been keen to develop a school-based route and 25 schemes are listed in the Performance Profiles. Each is quite small, with about 20 entrants on average, and mainly concentrates on either primary training or a restricted range of secondary subjects. Seven of the schemes are so new that they have not yet had published inspections and so cannot be included in all the tables.

In 1997-98 the school-based route provided 534 recruits in all, comparable to the intakes at, say, the University of Exeter (545) and Christchurch Canterbury (551). The performance of the school-based schemes is presented in a separate table, but, if they had been included with the institutions, the Billericay Educational Consortium would have come fourth overall, and the Oxfordshire Consortium, another for primary training institution, is just outside the top 10.

But the Urban Learning Foundation for both primary and secondary trainees, would have propped up the entire table - and not only as it had not tracked the employment of those qualifying. It also rated lowest among the school- based schemes on entry qualifications and inspection grades for both primary and secondary.

On average, the school-based schemes tend to have higher entry qualifications and a higher proportion of entrants going into teaching (if the Urban Learning Foundation is discounted) than the traditional routes. But they also have markedly lower quality ratings from Ofsted. This may be because school-based schemes had not bedded down at the time of the inspections, and it will be interesting to see the results of the next round, to be published soon.

Many of the features which the Performance Profiles reveal are consistent over time. Those topping the lists now, also did so in 1996-97. The relative performance of the institutional and school-based schemes was similar. The patterns for entry qualifications and for employment were also alike for the two years. The one major area of difference was in the inspection reports where low grades seemed to have provided a wake-up call to some institutions such as Durham, Liverpool, Warwick and Kingston universities. Others, such as Derby, Reading and the Open University, do not seem to have progressed much from initial low grades.

Taken together, the data confirms the picture of a training system where there are too few men and where ethnic minorities are under-represented. Entry qualifications are generally low, many trainees do not go into teaching, and inspections reveal worrying deficiencies.

But some institutions do buck the trends. The attractions of Oxford and Cambridge are obvious, and the same probably holds true for the older universities. The experience and reputation of some of the specialist training institutions - whether or not they have been incorporated into universities - and the former polytechnics, also puts them ahead of the game.

Some institutions, such as the University of North London, the Urban Learning Foundation and the University of East London, manage to bring in a high proportion of trainees from minority ethnic backgrounds while the school-based training schemes seem to do particularly well in recruiting males.

Nevertheless, the TTA's Performance Profiles underline the message that teaching is by no means a sufficiently attractive profession. The top performers in the table are those who are able to choose their entrants, but for most it is a matter of filling their places as best they can. The challenge of the implementation of the Green Paper is to create the conditions whereby many more providers will be able to select their entrants so that they have every chance of raising the quality of their provision to the very best. The danger of the TTA's very informative performance tables is that they will lead to talent becoming even more concentrated, further widening the already considerable gap between the best and the worst.

Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson are both directors at the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Liverpool