UCAS: In a class of your own

A career in teaching beckons, but which route will you choose and what skills do you need? Maureen O'Connor has the answers

Any prospective student still looking for a degree course place in the vacancy listings will observe that education is a very viable option. Applications for undergraduate courses leading to qualified teacher status fell this year, and at the end of August there were still vacancies at prestigious institutions like the Roehampton Institute and Goldsmith's College, London, for prospective teachers.

The problem for school-leavers who may not be sure that they have a vocation for teaching is whether to commit to the BEd route now or to study for a degree in another subject and opt for post-graduate training in three year's time. The quickest route into the profession is via a three-year BEd course, and it may be significant in the light of the abolition of the maintenance grant that applications for four-year primary BEd courses have fallen more sharply than those for three-year courses.

Typically a BEd course offers a mixture of professional training in schools, study of a specialist subject, curriculum studies and general educational issues. The postgraduate route allows three years of specialist study for a first degree and crams the other three components of teacher education into the single postgraduate year. In general, primary schools still prefer the four-year BEd training for their staff, while secondary schools prefer the in-depth subject knowledge provided by the postgraduate route, although there are now highly regarded primary postgraduate courses as well.

The fall in the number of applications for undergraduate courses to some extent takes the shine off the increase in the number of postgraduate applications this year. It may be the power of advertising, or it may be a more subtle shift in the image of the teaching profession, or it may even be that the postgraduate route has significant financial advantages over the BEd teacher training route. The Teacher Training Agency, which has been responsible for the massive recent TV advertising campaign which at one stage pulled in 4,700 inquiries from putative teachers in a week, must have had an effect, but it seems to have been a swings and roundabouts outcome, rather than the end of the teacher shortage which was hoped for by the Government.

Money may be the factor which has depressed recruitment to BEd courses. Four-year BEd students pay tuition fees in the normal way for every year of their course, while PGCE students pay no fees for their postgraduate year and are also eligible for shortage subject bursaries of up to pounds 5,000 on top of their maintenance loans. If it is going to take four years to become a qualified teacher, then the three plus one route might appear to be financially preferable.

School-leavers considering teaching at this late stage must bear one or two things in mind which do not apply to applications to other degree courses. Student teachers are required to have passed GCSE English language and maths at Grade C or better. Prospective teachers should also know that before they can be employed in schools they will be subject to criminal record screening. Some universities insist on this before accepting applicants, and some require medical checks.

Beyond that school-leavers considering a teaching career should consider very carefully what sort of teaching they might be best at. Secondary school staff are still expected to teach one or two subjects almost exclusively and their training - either through the BEd or the PGCE routes - is based on this premise. The choice of the subject you most enjoy has to be balanced against the fact that schools do not teach every subject which is taught at university level. Vacancies in maths and science are readily available, physical education is an attractive teaching option, but jobs in economics and sociology are rare because they are often only taught at sixth-form level.

Primary teachers still generally teach a class across the board, although junior school children are increasingly being taught by teachers with a specialism. Primary courses will all offer preparation for the teaching of English, maths and science, plus two or three other subjects from the national curriculum. There is normally the opportunity to specialise in one subject to provide the option of becoming a subject co-ordinator in a primary school.

And what about jobs at the end of the course? With PGCE applications going up, and BEd applications down, is the teacher shortage over? Hardly. Vacancies reached record levels last year, partly as the result of the stampede amongst older staff for early retirement before the financial advantages disappeared last year. This year the vacancy rate across the country is 0.7 of the teaching force, but the pattern of vacancies is, as usual, a very uneven one. A young graduate looking for a job in a rural area might be in difficulties. Those ready to go to London or the other big cities should have little trouble finding a job, particularly in the primary sector. That is a pattern which is not likely to change much over the next few years.

Science and maths teachers still find the largest number of jobs on offer. One third of vacancies this year are in those areas, up from 27 per cent last year. This year the number of students finishing their training in those subjects is the lowest for more than ten years, so the job situation for new recruits will stay buoyant in those subjects for some time to come. Clearly the Government is hoping that by the time this year's school- leavers come onto the job market, the teacher recruitment situation will have improved. But few would bet on there being many unemployed new teachers in 2002.

Nor is an education degree a bar to entry into other professions. A significant proportion of BEd students change their minds about teaching during their courses, but according to the universities most are able to find careers in areas such as personnel and retail management where their "people skills" are appreciated by employers.

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