Education: Teacher training - Where did the teachers go?

No one forgets a good teacher - but what about paying them more
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The Independent Online
IN MANY respects, the government's education policy is going well. But there is one area where the news is not so good, and that is teacher training.Further progress across the board depends crucially on a ready supply of highly trained teachers coming into the profession.

It is a moot point as to when a drama becomes a crisis, but teacher training is pretty close as it is hit by the double whammy of too few recruits signing up to courses and too many higher education providers dropping out. The announcement this week that the government is to try to entice more maths and science graduates into the profession by offering them a pounds 5,000 "golden hello" is some indication of the seriousness of the situation, especially for secondary schools.

In spite of the Department for Education and Employment's pounds 1.5 million "No-one forgets a good teacher" advertising campaign, there is a ten per cent shortfall in post-graduate recruitment this year. Drop-out rates for Post Graduate Certificate of Education courses are also high.

The recruitment figures are worse in the shortage subjects. Recruitment of trainee maths teachers is 18 per cent down, the fifth successive annual decline, and there are serious problems in getting information technology specialists. The government hopes that by paying pounds 5000, spread over several years, to these specialists they may be persuaded to train and to remain in the schools. But the problem is a huge one. According to John Howson of Oxford Brookes University, the shortfall in recruitment to maths courses is the equivalent of three intakes of more than 6,000 students.

Money is undoubtedly a factor for prospective teachers.They are not liable for fees for their PGCE training. But as they come out of their degree courses with heavy debts many may be deterred by the prospect of running up even heavier liabilities for living costs if they do not go straight into work. The starting salary of pounds 15,000 a year for graduates is not wildly out of line with what new graduates can expect to earn in other professions but progression after that is slower than in many other graduate jobs.

Nor is there much comfort in the idea that there is an army of former teachers, mainly women, waiting to return to work if they are needed. John Howson's research reveals that the numbers wishing to return to teaching have been falling for a decade. In 1985/6 more than 18,000 entrants to the profession were returners. By 1996 the number had fallen to 11,000 - a reduction from 44 per cent to 24 per cent.

The reasons for this fall are not entirely clear.Schools may prefer young new entrants, as anecdote has it,because they are cheaper. But the more likely explanation seems to be that former teachers are not out there in the same numbers any more - and may not be again. That is ominous news if the supply of new recruits is also in decline.

The crisis is a complex one in which the university and college providers of post-graduate teacher education, some of whom are finding it extremely difficult to fill their places,are just as unhappy as the government. Where they are failing to recruit there is an understandable temptation simply to withdraw uneconomic courses.

The providers also feel under threat from the combined forces of the Teacher Training Agency and the inspection service, Ofsted. The former has imposed a "national curriculum" for English, maths and information technology in teacher training which some universities say has been introduced too quickly and is too prescriptive.

Ofsted is led by the chief inspector Chris Woodhead, who has publicly criticised standards of teacher education and of educational research. The latter is an integral part of the job for university teacher trainers, subject to the same Research Assessment Exercise as other academic areas. There is no doubt that Ofsted has alienated many of the institutions it has inspected and, in some cases, "failed". Universities value their academic freedom highly and have not taken kindly to interference on this scale. The Open University has announced that it is withdrawing its primary PCGE course until the year 2001, and may do the same with its secondary PGCE following a critical Ofsted report. The OU currently has 843 students on PGCE courses. It is one of 15 institutions where the TTA has started procedures to withdraw accreditation following an unsatisfactory Ofsted report.

Greenwich University and Nene College have also decided to withdraw courses, taking out around 500 places. Four other providers look likely to follow suit and many others are considering their position.

The Teacher Training Agency has gained a high profile with its cinema and TV celebrity advertising campaign. The impact so far does not appear to have been dramatic but the

Agency says in its own defence that it is aiming as much at school pupils looking two or three years ahead at their career prospects as at this year's school-leavers.

Over that time scale, other factors, such as the state of the economy, may have as dramatic an effect on teacher recruitment as anything else. Graduate recruitment is buoyant at the moment and starting salaries have risen sharply.

But even a mild recession could make teaching look like an attractive option again financially and in terms of relative security.

Glossy advertisements are all very well, but they have to be set against continuing denigration of the profession in some sections of the media, fuelled not only by Chris Woodhead's Ofsted pronouncements but even by the Prime Minister, talking to prospective head teachers about the joys of sacking colleagues.

Some of the questions that John Howson thinks need answering urgently are: what are the implications of many more undergraduates taking subjects which are not school subjects; what do graduates want from a career when they graduate; and how financially stressful is a 36 week PGCE course which leaves students little or no time for any part-time work to make ends meet?