Why does no one want to teach?

Podium: From a speech by the professor of education at Liverpool University to a conference on teaching in London
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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE about 370,000 full-time teachers in state schools, almost equally divided between nursery /primary and secondary. Over 30,000 leave each year. Currently, about a third of the departures are retirements or due to ill-health, another third are managed exits arising from changes in the system, and the final third are teachers leaving the profession, often to take other employment.

The teaching crisis of the 1980s was caused in part by cutting back the training system too far. There was belated recognition that the post-war baby boom had not continued. The policy of expanding the teacher training colleges was thrown into reverse. It was decided that the postgraduate courses would also have to bear their share of the cuts.

By 1983 the size of the training system had been cut to only 15,000 places. Since that date there has been an attempt to plan the training capacity by setting targets.

There has been no difficulty in meeting the primary school targets, and both undergraduate and postgraduate courses have been over-subscribed. But at the secondary level it is a different story. Apart from the depths of the economic recession in the early 1990s it has not been possible to meet the overall target. Currently, apart from history, PE and RE, none of the subject targets is being met.

Teaching for many is a second choice profession. Some graduates will go into it if nothing better comes along. When it does, an appreciable number leave. This picture of teaching as a less preferred option is reinforced by the qualifications of graduates on PGCE courses. In every case, including history, the proportion with good degrees is below that for the subject. In maths and information technology two-thirds do not have good degrees. The average A-level points score of entrants to undergraduate education courses is below that of every other subject area.

Not only does teaching seem relatively unattractive, but it is looking for an enormous number of graduates each year.

Although the grave situation in maths and modern languages is widely acknowledged, the seriousness of the problem in the sciences is, to some extent, hidden.

Because the subject in the national curriculum is "science" the target for teacher training is also framed in these terms. But there are not only more biologists to fill those places but biology graduates are also more inclined to become teachers. Physics taught by well qualified physicists is in grave danger of disappearing from our schools. We seem to be in the grip of a negative feedback loop where too few teachers leads to too few young people being attracted to the subject so that the pool from which teachers can be recruited is itself too small.

It is for the policy makers to decide what to do. If it would be helpful to them I can, however, pull out some of the main issues that have occurred to me as I have worked through the numbers:

The first is that teaching now has to compete on an open market for graduates, whereas in the past there have been dedicated entry routes. Teaching has to become sufficiently attractive to at least hold its own against other employers who are looking to recruit graduates.

In general, the rewards of work can be divided into two categories: extrinsic and intrinsic. An appropriate structure for teaching will therefore mean getting the extrinsic rewards like salary, security and status right, but also paying attention to the intrinsic satisfactions - the nature of the job itself. Independent schools, by and large, have less difficulty in recruiting staff than state schools and, since salaries are often not that much higher, this must mean that the conditions of service are more appealing. It would be interesting to find out just why.

A possible way of addressing the shortage subjects would be through trying to increase the number of places in the basic disciplines at university. An unfortunate consequence of the rapid expansion of higher education is that it has spread out in a wide variety of directions, but the number of places in the national curriculum subjects, the fundamental ways of making sense of the world, have in many cases hardly increased at all. There perhaps ought to be a deliberate attempt to increase the size of the pools from which maths, physical science and modern language teachers can be recruited.

Information about recruitment to teacher training has improved, but, in addition, there should be regular monitoring of samples of schools to ascertain how they view the quality of applicants.