The future supply of teachers is a tricky problem, but it is crucially important: improving teacher quality is of limited value if we fail to provide enough of them. Andrew Wilson and Richard Pearson, of the Institute of Manpower Studies, have therefore done well to pull together a balanced account for the commission.
In its submission to the teachers' pay review body last winter, the Government emphasised the huge increase in numbers of graduates applying to train as teachers - more than double the previous year in some subjects. But the Department for Education recognises that the school population is likely to grow by 12 per cent over the next decade, and that more teachers will be needed if class sizes are to remain the same.
The commission argues that increased recruitment to teacher training courses - 50 per cent up overall between 1987 and 1991 - probably reflects the tighter graduate job market rather than a greater desire among graduates to consider teaching as a career. That assumption is obviously arguable. But, as the commission points out, there is a sizeable wastage from training courses: in 1991, 13 per cent of postgraduate trainees failed to complete, and 22 per cent of BEd students dropped out. In the end, only three-quarters of those who train as teachers take up teaching jobs.
Does that kind of wastage matter? After all, there are very encouraging signs: more mature students, aged 26 and over, are applying to train as teachers, and there is good reason to believe that they are more likely to remain in the profession.
Moreover, half of the annual intake to teaching each year now comes from trained teachers who have taken a career break - a significant improvement in the numbers returning to the classroom. Mainly they are women who left to start a family, or teachers who have tried out another job for a time. The pool of trained teachers who might be lured back is huge; beyond the 442,000 working as teachers, there are a further 350,000 who are trained as teachers, but not working in classrooms. Of those, about 75,000 definitely intend to return, and 20,000 more could probably be persuaded back.
Those promising features have been enhanced by the Government's licensed teacher programme, which now enables unqualified 'mature' entrants to train in the classroom. The supply of new teachers is, as the Commission recognises, growing fast. Entrants are older. The numbers leaving teaching for other work rose during the late Eighties, but were still relatively small, even exceeded by those retiring early on grounds of ill health.
So what is the problem? Partly, it is very difficult to pinpoint how serious teacher shortages are. The usual measure - job vacancies - tends to underestimate the problem, because it hides areas where staff are filling in, teaching subjects for which they do not have special qualifications. Around one in five secondary school lessons is taken by a teacher with no specialist qualifications in the subject - with computer studies, business studies and craft subjects showing the most serious mismatch. Vacancy rates, however, also reflect perfectly normal turnover - so they may be an overestimate.
There are some problems about which we can be certain. Shortages in some subjects, such as music and languages, are particularly severe. The commission accepts that bursary payments to trainees in shortage subjects have a limited impact. More effective proposals are to widen access by running more flexible, school-based training courses, particularly for mature entrants, and to retrain teachers in mid-career if they want to work in a new area.
But the most dismal problem is in London. Teacher shortages are more desperate in the capital, particularly the inner-city areas, than anywhere else in England; nearly 10 times as bad as in the northern region. The turnover rate among newly appointed teachers in London is 24 per cent in two years and 42 per cent within five. Those figures tell a miserable tale for the continuity of a child's school experience; they may also help to explain why parental dissatisfaction with state education is more deeply seated in the capital than in any other part of the
'The Problem of Teacher Shortages', NCE Briefing Number 4, is available from the National Commission on Education, Suite 24,
10-18 Manor Gardens, London